PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

simulating the Palestinian refugee issue

In June, I was fortunate to be invited by Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) to help organize and moderate a simulation of possible future Middle East peace negotiations on the Palestinian refugee issue. The meeting was  part of a broader three-year project (the “Minster Lovell process”) on the regional dimension of the Palestinian refugee issue, supported by the European Union and the International Development Research Centre (Canada).

shatijpgThe simulation was intended to explore the bilateral, regional, and international issues involved in reaching an agreement on the refugee issue, as well as the challenges of implementing such an agreement once it had been reached. More than thirty-five participants took part in the simulation, including researchers, journalists, activists, former officials, and officials (acting in non-official capacities) from the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The whole thing was held in the rather idyllic surroundings of Eynsham Hall, a stately home in the Oxfordshire countryside (with a very nice bar too, I must say). Needless to add, while this served to further enhance the experience, it was about as far as one can get from a Palestinian refugee camp (right: Shati refugee camp, Gaza).

The simulation final report can be found here. The purpose of the exercise was not to use simulation for teaching or training purposes per se in this case (although people certainly learned things), but rather to offer new perspectives on one of the most difficult dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to encourage participants to engage the complex and sensitive details of the issue in a way that polite seminar discussions don’t always achieve. In this, I think, we were modestly successful—to the point the the UK Foreign Office subsequently financed a one-day follow up meeting a few months later to examine some of these facets in greater detail.

Having previously run simulations in university settings (and having taken part in military exercises in the distant past), I had several observations from this rather different experience:

  • Students (and soldiers) typically can be told what to do—how the simulation will work, what the rules are, what the schedule is, and so forth. Very senior former officials and academic colleagues have to be handled more, well, diplomatically.
  • Momentum is critical. If the simulation starts off well, and everyone is immediately swept up in a flurry of urgent things to do, an enthusiasm soon develops for the process and it can acquire a life of its own.
  • The little touches—flags, delegation placards, and so forth—make a difference, helping participants “live” their roles.
  • Mixed groups—for example, academic experts and policymakers/officials—likely work better than more homogenous sets of participants. In this case, the mix was particularly useful in informing officials of complex technical issues that they may not have been fully aware of before, and illustrating political and negotiation constraints that academic experts may not have fully appreciated.
  • You know your simulation is realistic when some of your simulated negotiators want to call their capital for negotiating instructions.
  • Helpers make an enormous difference. We couldn’t have pulled it off without exceptional assistance from our small group of Chatham House staff and interns.
  • Have someone else facilitate the debrief and discussion session. In class, I’m always using the debrief session to link the simulation to the course content, illustrate key concepts and dynamics, and so forth. At the expert level, you need to be in listening mode, and that’s much easier when a skilled third party in chairing the session (thanks, Mike!).
  • When the entire IT infrastructure of a conference facility crashes the night before an IT-based simulation is about the start: curse loudly, order champagne, and reboot the ethernet router.

The simulation report can be found here.

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