21 September 2007

21 September 2007 - The siege of Bethlehem

Last night, Israeli negotiator Moty Cristal was the featured speaker at a film screening hosted by Harvard’s Program on Negotiation (PON). The film, The Siege of Bethlehem, documents the negotiations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militiamen during the 38-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Produced by the BBC, the film is a fascinating portrayal of the bargaining process.

The issue that sustained the siege for so long was the question of what to do with Hamas terrorists who had holed up inside the church. The Israelis wanted to arrest or deport them; the Palestinians wanted to go free. Various other Palestinian militants were also inside the church, along with many civilians who did not want to stay but were too afraid of retaliation by Hamas to leave of their own accord.

The formula that was eventually reached was a trade: men for food. For every group of civilians that the Palestinians allowed to leave, the Israeli soldiers would deliver more food to the church. This was a shaky, unstable arrangement whose success depended on countless other factors, including the contemporaneous siege of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah and the intervention of international actors.

The main drama is actually not between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s between the soldiers on the scene, who have formed their own negotiating team, and the political leadership higher up, which has different interests and goals. The trust that the soldiers carefully build with the Palestinians inside the church is sometimes undermined, and the negotiators are very open about their frustration.

The film highlighted two really striking aspects of the relationships that unfolded on the scene. One was the camaraderie that developed between soldiers and the Palestinians; some of the greetings outside the church were quite warm. The other was the continuing disagreement among various Christian sects after the siege over who would re-enter the church first, which produces some amusing confrontations.

Some of the usual moonbats turned out for the screening, and complained that the film was “biased” because of its focus on the Israeli soldiers. Cristal responded smartly: “It’s great news to hear that the BBC is biased in favor of Israel.” Most of the people in the packed lecture hall were simply wowed by the presentation, which helped us make sense of an extremely complicated and politically charged situation.

The two sides started with no room for possible agreement. But by applying simple negotiating lessons—such as brainstorming together to find ways of creating shared gains—they found room for compromise: some of the men in the church were to be deported, while others would be shipped to Gaza and others would be freed. The CIA stepped in to “impose” the agreement, and the rest was history. Amazing stuff.

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