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Peace through teen camps

Published on Aug 25, 2014 12:14 PM
Israelis at a peace rally calling on the Israeli government to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority. Mass rallies aside, the writers find that positive personal contact among individuals from opposing groups can help pave the way towards peace. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When two groups are in conflict, how can you improve relations between them?

One strategy is to encourage positive personal contact among individuals from each group. If a Catholic and a Protestant in Northern Ireland would only sit down together to talk - learning about one another's families, hearing about one another's fears - the encounter, according to this approach, would foster understanding, humanise the enemy and lessen bigotry. The scholarly version of this idea is known as interpersonal contact theory.

It's an intriguing hypothesis, but does it work in reality? For four years, we studied Seeds of Peace, a programme that every year brings together several hundred teenagers from conflict regions, such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, for a three-week summer camp in Maine. The teenagers sleep, eat and play games together, and engage in daily sessions to talk about the conflict between their groups and their own experiences with it.

We measured how the intervention affected Israelis' and Palestinians' relationships with, and attitudes towards, one another. Our results, which will be published in the September issue of the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, offer a glimpse of the power of forming a relationship with even just one person from the other side of a conflict.

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