Gaza conflict tested UMSL peace project


When violence broke out in Gaza, Israelis and Palestinians participants in the “Mind of Peace” experiment at University of Missouri-St. Louis had just finished hammering out an agreement for a peace settlement and were on the verge of signing it.

But with the war in Gaza that began in late December came a refusal from the five-member Palestinian panel to sign the settlement until a ceasefire in Gaza was in place.

“They were very upset, understandably,” said Ohad Barnoy, referring to the reaction of the Palestinian panel. “They felt that, while they did have a commitment to the experiment, this would not be the right time to sign this document and continue with this effort, until a cease-fire is agreed on.” Barnoy, a Chesterfield resident, was part of the five-member Israeli panel.

Galit Lev-Harir, another member of the Israeli panel, had a stronger reaction. “After Israel went into Gaza, all the Palestinians in the delegation, who had previously said they condemned the rocket attacks against Israel, refused to sign the agreement.

“We were very disappointed,” she said, referring to the Israeli delegation. “We really believed that the Palestinians wanted peace, and that the Palestinians in the West Bank would show the Palestinian population in Gaza that there was another way — you could achieve peace with Israel with diplomacy as opposed to violence. By supporting Hamas, it shows that people think that terrorism can be used as a mean to achieving diplomatic goals. And that’s a disappointment.”

However, on Sunday, Feb. 1, the peace agreement was signed by representatives of both sides during a ceremony at UMSL.

UMSL visiting Israeli professor Sapir Handelman designed the Mind of Peace experiment to serve as a model for direct, people-to-people, grassroots peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — something that was successful in South Africa and Northern Ireland but had never been tried in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Panels of five Israelis and five Palestinians came together in five sessions in December to negotiate a peace agreement. Handelman served as moderator, along with Mazen Badra, a Palestinian professor. That session was the first of several peace experiments now planned by Handelman and Badra, with the next one scheduled for the UMSL campus on Feb. 15.

On the war in Gaza, Handelman, who lives in Bel-Nor, expressed sadness. “The events in Gaza are very, very painful. It is tragic for both sides. In the Mind of Peace experiment, we selected to continue the course, no matter what was going to happen, as (it) is a simulation of an Israeli-Palestinian public assembly,” Handelman said.

Barnoy said he was not surprised by Israel’s military incursion in Gaza.

“This is something Israel probably should have done a few years ago. Sad as it is, this is something that Israel was sort of forced into. It had the obligation to its citizens to protect them and this was the only way, after years of trying other ways,” he said.

Added Lev-Harir: “Israel has done an exceptional job in Gaza, in trying to weed out an enemy that hides among civilians. Israel did what it had to do to protect its citizens. They have taken every step they can to avoid civilian casualties. Hamas has been hiding its weapons in hospitals, schools, mosques and hiding behind human shields among, and that they are the reason why civilian casualties to be so high.”

In January, Barnoy was on KMOX radio with Mazen Badra, the Christian Palestinian moderator in the Mind of Peace experiment, who lives in Florissant. The two were interviewed in two separate segments by Charlie Brennan and discussed the situation in Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“What was said on the radio was a very good explanation of both sides of the conflict,” Barnoy said. “It was very important to me to hear Mazen renouncing what Hamas was doing, and say that he completely disagreed with Hamas sending missiles and with their actions. We both expressed sadness and anger about citizens, and children, being killed on both sides of the border.”

However, Lev-Harir, who heard the first radio show but not the second, thought that Mazen Badra’s comments sounded very different. “(Badra) went on the radio and publicly justified Hamas’ incursion, all their actions against Israel,” she said. “I was very surprised because Mazen is a Christian and I had thought that he condemned violence unequivocally.”

Barnoy disagreed with that perception. “(Badra) said in the (second) conversation that he was opposed to Hamas, and thought that was a bad action,” Barnoy said. He added that while he was disappointed by the negative international reaction to Israel’s actions in Gaza, he knew Israel was glad to see U.S. support still so strong. However, he also noted that while countries might say negative things about Israel, it is action, not talk, that really mattered.

“The Palestinian people know what Hamas is,” Badra added. “If they expected Hezbollah or Iran to start launching rockets, they were wrong. They were left alone.

“(Palestinians) have a right to oppose occupation but I think they will think a hundred times before going back to military means to send a message.” Badra thought that the war might weaken the influence of Hamas and encourage more Palestinians to embrace a non-violent approach.

Handelman expressed hope that a public assembly like the one modeled in the Mind of Peace experiment could take place in Israel, “so the people can be involved in the process.” Despite the events in Gaza, Lev-Harir is still hopeful about the Mind of Peace experiment’s potential to lead to peace.

“I don’t feel that the Israel conflict is between the Israelis and the Palestinians but has to do with the attitudes of both sides,” she said. Back in Israel, Galit Lev-Harir worked for many years during the Intifada with Palestinians in Israel and visited both the West Bank and Gaza during that time.

“All of the Palestinians I knew and worked with told me they supported violent struggle — they believed in violence as a means to achieving diplomatic things,” she said.

“I was greatly surprised in the Mind of Peace experiment when all the Palestinians in the experiment condemned Hamas and were against violence against Israel.”

In her experience, she found that Israelis and Palestinians personally could get along well.

The problem is that there is no one in the Palestinian leadership who is able or truly interested in making peace. If there had been Palestinian leaders who were able and interested in making peace, there would have been peace a long time ago,” she said.


WHAT: A simulation of a Palestinian-Israeli public assembly, a multi-party congress for resolution of the conflict. Panels of 5 Israelis and 5 Palestinians meet for 5 sessions to negotiate an agreement.

WHERE: UMSL campus, 331 Social Sciences and Business Building

WHEN: The second experiment runs February 15 to March 1, on Wednesdays at 6:30-8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4 to 6 p.m.

MORE INFO: The events are free but donations are welcome. For information, visit or call 314-516-7299.