Israeli and Palestinian participants in a model United Nations in Israel conference held recently near Tel Aviv.Ramzi Sfeir, a 17-year-old from the Palestinian village of Bet Jalla, never believed that Palestinians and Israelis could agree on anything.

But after he was offered a chance to sit at a mock negotiating table with Jewish Israelis his own age, he says that many of his preconceived notions just faded away.

“I learned that you can talk without fighting,” he said, after participating in a model United Nations in Israel, aimed at teaching diplomacy skills to youth. “I also learned that Jews have convictions we can’t change and that Judaism is like a nationality for them. [The Jewish participants] also came to understand us better.”

Though there are hundreds of model UN programs in countries around the world, Israel is one of the only Middle East nations to host one; and is the only one with a special committee that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to negotiate regional issues.

At the most recent conference of The Israel Middle East Model United Nations, held a few weeks ago near Tel Aviv, 250 students representing 16 Israeli, Palestinian and international high schools and 2 programs (the Jerusalem Debate Team and Seeds for Peace) joined for sessions on coexistence and such international issues as economic, social, environmental, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction policy.

Each school or program represented a different UN member state. An international high school with a primarily Arabic-speaking student body represented the United States. Jewish Israeli schools represented Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Role-playing is an essential part of the program, organizers say, to help students see issues through the eyes of others.

Mirroring the real UN, a number of committees met, including human rights and territorial disputes committees. The mock security council passed two resolutions on Iraq in late January, one denouncing unilateral military action; and another condemning Iraq’s breach of resolution 144l and calling for a one month ultimatum period.

“We also tried to introduce issues beyond the Middle East to broaden their scope of the world–like AIDS, the International Criminal Court, child pornography, and conflicts in Kashmir or Cyprus, for example,” said Sara
Jane Shapira, director of the Model United Nations program at the Walworth Barbour American International School. WBAI and the Hayovel School, two Israeli high schools, partnered to organize this year’s conference.

While Arabic-speaking students from Israeli and Palestinian villages joined up with Jewish Israelis and foreign nationals on all committees, a special closed committee was launched this year which dealt exclusively with Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Called “The Eighth Committee,” and focusing on conflict resolution, students represented their own points of view, instead of role-playing. With funding from UNESCO and guidance from Israel’s Adam Institute for Democracy, the committee debated how to teach democracy and the flash-point issues of security, roadblocks, curfews, military presence, democratic policy, and Jerusalem’s sovereignty.

“We listened to each other and debated about the conflict, even through disagreement, bewilderment and powerful emotions,” said Eran Mick, 17, a Jewish Israeli from the Herziliya suburb of Tel Aviv. “It’s amazing that conflict arose at every corner but we understood it’s okay to argue and we didn’t get up and leave.”

Mick says he came to better understand how Palestinians feel about Jerusalem, roadblocks, and soldiers, and for those living in Israel, how it feels to live in a Jewish State. “We tried to show them that we come from a moral standpoint and help them see us as human. They also have a moral standpoint, and that’s the tragedy. There are no black and white answers, but we have to understand where the other side is coming from. I think we just don’t know each other’s heritage, culture, and background.”

Organizers tried to limit friction between the students and for retreats by placing Arabic-speaking students with foreign student hosts. But when a Jewish-Israeli invited Ramzi to spend the night, he accepted. “It was the first time in my life I stayed with an Israeli and it was totally unexpected,” he said. “But it was great, we went out, we had fun. We are discovering new perspectives.”

Students and organizers are already busy planning next year’s conference.

“If Israeli and Palestinian governments worked in the same way we have been working there will be peace,” said Oren Pasternak, another student member of the Eighth Committee.

“At a time when there is so much bloodshed in the Middle East we sit side-by-side, Israelis and Palestinians, and discuss how to solve this problem. If our leaders can’t meet and reach a solution, we can do the job for them.”