Hostage will die in one hour. Your move

July 5, 2002

Two initiatives in Northern Ireland, no stranger to violence, are seeking new ways to look at global conflicts and peacemaking. Zionists negotiate with Islamic terrorists while the Foreign Office mediates in a role-play exercise chillingly close to reality. Olga Wojtas reports. 

News has just broken of the kidnapping of a group of Israeli settlers in Hebron on the West Bank. The kidnappers are a militant Islamic group, Tora-Bora Revenge, led by Sheikh Sbeer, who has a reputation for absolute ruthlessness.

Women and children are among those being held, and there are rumours that US citizens are involved. Palestinian and Israeli forces have been mobilised, and the US State Department has been put on high alert amid fears of increased volatility in the region.

The crisis is all too realistic, but it is not real: it is a role-play exercise for 50 second and third-year politics students at Queen's University, Belfast, who are studying the Middle East. They have been preparing for the five-hour role play for months. They have been divided into five teams - Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the US and Hamas - and today, they are coming together for the first time in multilateral talks, with the hope of negotiating a peaceful end to the crisis.

The preparation took on a life of its own, with teams avoiding one another not only in lectures but also socially, and trying to bug and infiltrate other teams' discussions. The US team ended up meeting in a member's home rather than in the university because of security fears. "It puts you right into what the atmosphere is, and you can't get that from textbooks. There's mistrust, and that's part of the stumbling block," one student says.

"You don't talk to people as a normal person," says another. "It's not Davie, it's an Israeli."

The course coordinator and game director, Middle East expert Beverley Milton-Edwards, says the aim is to encourage the students to engage in "deep learning" about the region, its politics and the complexities of a major conflict with international repercussions. The students are enthusiastic about this active learning, while admitting that they are working much harder and longer than normal. They sift the press daily for information and have frequent team discussions. "You have to be up to date and to know the histories of the other groups. It's negotiation, and you have to know what their demands are," one student says.

Teamwork usually creates complaints that not everyone is pulling their weight. But here, everyone wants to contribute. They will be assessed not on theatrical expertise, but on individual reports of work done before and during the day's events.

The teams have been sending out statements for weeks, learning how to couch them in appropriate language. A Hamas press release mistakenly refers to "Israel", implicitly accepting Israel's right to existence. The Israelis seize on this, thanking Hamas for acknowledging "the legitimate right for a sovereign Israeli nation". The Islamists are careful thereafter to refer to "the Zionist entity".

The Americans, meanwhile, demand that the American flag be higher than the others during negotiations, and that there should be a two-minute silence for the victims of September 11. The reality of the Middle East situation keeps blurring with the role play.

The packed conference room, its curtains closed, is claustrophobic. The talks are immediately tense: rather than tackling the hostage crisis, the teams are embroiled in arguments over Jenin and the alleged condoning of terrorism. Peter Hinchcliffe, former British ambassador to Jordan, who plays the leader of the kidnappers, Sheikh Sbeer, later says this sidetracking "has a very genuine ring to it".

The negotiations are chaired by Angus McKee of the Foreign Office's Middle East department. Milton-Edwards says the Foreign Office thinks it very important that students understand the complexities inherent to peace processes and situations of conflict throughout the world. Many of the male students turn up for the role play wearing traditional keffiyeh head-dresses, and some of the women wear hijab . "Colin Powell" is sporting a Stars-and-Stripes tie.

The students are under real-time pressure, with Sheikh Sbeer setting deadlines by which his demands must be met. These include the release of all Palestinian prisoners and the evacuation of Israeli settlers from the West Bank. As the day goes on, each team is hit by fresh crises that it must take into account in the negotiations. News comes of two Palestinian children being mortally wounded at the kidnap site, and a hostage, later identified as an American, is shot dead while trying to escape.

Positions shift, one team coaxes, another makes a grudging concession. After two hours, Milton-Edwards announces the outbreak of violent demonstrations across the Arab world in support of Sheikh Sbeer, with the Jordanian army losing control of parts of Amman. As soon as an issue seems to be near agreement, one team will make an extra demand. But gradual progress is being made, including Hamas offering a ceasefire and an Israeli commitment to review its settlement policy.

Sheikh Sbeer ups the ante. In 17 minutes, he will order either an indefinite extension or the destruction of the hostages. Within three minutes of the deadline, the Israelis announce their snipers have shot all the kidnappers. Hamas withdraw their ceasefire and walk out of the negotiations, and the Palestinian team declares war on Israel. McKee neatly defuses the resulting tension by asking: "Any last comments before we move on to agenda item two?"

Hinchcliffe, one of the negotiators when Britain freed Palestinian extremist Leila Khaled in the 1970 Black September hostage crisis, tells the students he is astounded by their knowledge and competence. "This was the most complicated and difficult of role plays, which brought back to me the kinds of tensions and deadlines that kept changing," he says. "If any of you were serving in any embassy I have been in charge of, I would have been very proud to have you."

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