By Michael Jacobs
michaeljacobs@reporternewspapers.net

The Palestinian refugee debate was heated.

The delegate from Egypt insisted the Arab world had to play by Israel’s rules. The delegate from Sudan mocked the idea of cooperating with the Western devil.

Delegates from Djibouti and Kuwait argued over how quickly to act to resolve the problem.

The Palestinian delegation pleaded for a land link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The representatives of half a dozen Arab nations rejected the idea out of hand.

One of Jordan’s delegates then found a formula for unity: “Move that we adjourn for lunch.”

Even delegates to the League of Arab States have to eat, especially when they’re not seasoned diplomats, but high-schoolers participating in the 18th annual Atlanta High School Model Arab League at the Marist School in Brookhaven.

About 200 students from 17 high schools, including Buckhead’s North Atlanta High, Pace Academy and Lovett School, competed in the diplomatic adventure Jan. 29 and 30.

“I think they have a good time, and they learn to think on their feet,” said Louisa Moffett, who teaches a Middle East studies course at Marist and has organized the Model Arab League since the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations first brought the program here.

The program aims to teach useful skills — negotiation, compromise, parliamentary procedure — and Arab knowledge beyond terrorism, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The national council’s John Mulholland told the students that most of America’s problems in the Arab world are “a direct result of woeful ignorance,” and better education will lead to better U.S. security.

“We need people in the United States who have this knowledge of the Arab world,” Kennesaw State University professor Maia Hallward said in her keynote address.

Much of the students’ learning occurred in advance as they researched the issues and the governments. At the conference, the education came from experience: All the time between the hour-long opening session and the Day 2 lunch of hummus, pita, falafel and baklava was spent in five policy councils.

For example, 40 students from 19 national delegations formed the Council on Palestinian Affairs and tackled economic development, refugees and Jerusalem. Last year’s council failed to pass a single resolution. This year, it passed five.

Two came from “Lebanon,” Marist seniors Taylor McDowell, Betsy Helmer and Kelsey Sharp. McDowell was named an outstanding delegate; Helmer received honorable mention.

(For the overall delegations, Marist’s Lebanon group, Heritage High’s Tunisia, and Centennial High’s Sudan and Jordan were judged outstanding, and North Atlanta High’s Syria, Marist’s Djibouti and Woodstock High’s United Arab Emirates received honorable mention.)

“I was surprised at how much fun I had. I thought it was going to be boring,” said Sharp, 18, whose working paper on Palestinian refugees developed into a winning resolution. “I liked working with these other people. Everyone else was so into it.”

Helmer, 17, whose paper on the Gaza economy won approval, said the key was “to jump in right away. There’s not that much time.”

Especially when the student diplomats could act like their adult counterparts and spend two hours arguing over the use of “demand” regarding Helmer’s proposal that Israel hand control of Mediterranean ports to the Palestinians.

The delegates finally removed the word with real-world wisdom. “It’s hard to demand,” Helmer said, “when you don’t have an army.”

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