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Local Mideast peace experiment garners some signatures

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2009 - Emotional conflict over the violence in Gaza caused difficulty for the Mind of Peace Experiment, a public assembly of Israelis and Palestinians moderated by Israeli Sapir Handelman and Palestinian Mazen Badra. They brought together people to try to make personal connections and find common ground on proposals for Middle East peace. Six Israelis of seven in the delegation appeared on Sunday, Feb. 1 to sign a peace agreement, concluding the experiment, but only one Palestinian delegate came to join Badra.

"I'm very disappointed that the rest of the Palestinian delegation did not come to at least talk about why they don't feel comfortable signing today," said delegate, Galit Lev-Harir.

Cultural Differences

Cultural tension blanketed a small meeting room on the University of Missouri St. Louis campus as the document that the groups had created together passed through each delegate's hands for signing.

"I know that at least two of the Palestinians have expressed difficulty with the Israelis in this room," moderator Badra explained.

He said the Palestinians were upset that the Israeli delegation did not contact them to discuss feelings or to express condolences after the violence in Gaza escalated; and therefore, they gave up on signing the agreement.

The Israelis admitted they did not realize how important it was to the Palestinians that they reach out to them to express concern over the situation. Some of the Israeli delegation said they were insulted that the Palestinians interpreted the lack of contact as uncaring, and many re-expressed their deep dismay over the violence and their dedication to the peace process.

"There was certainly a lesson in that: That we should have made the effort to try to call," said Lev-Harir.

Still a Road to Peace?

In spite of the cultural and personal differences, Badra says the experiment yielded positive results.

"There will never be a bad side for getting to know the other side more. There will be some setbacks, disappointment sometimes, because you come to expect more when you meet with the other side," he explained. "But I think that good communication will create more understanding."

Badra signed the agreement, making the total number of Palestinian signatures two.

"Being here, this is a sign that we are peace-lovers, both sides," said Palestinian delegate Munir. "We believe that there is no other solution."

Handelman, a Lentz fellow and designer of this model for conflict resolution, is committed to continue with the experiment. He wants to begin another session on Feb. 15, this time with students. However, because of the situation in Gaza, they have had trouble getting Palestinians to participate.

"If we're not going to do it [on the 15th], we're going to do it one month later," Handelman explained. "We're committed to do it, and in other locations. But it's very important to continue."

After more than 60 years of war, Munir says that the Palestinian people are ready to work toward another solution.

"It's not easy. It may be harder than war, but it has to be there, we have to work on it."

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