Optimism in the Form of Rail Links and Water

Landing in the national airport just outside Rafah in the Gaza Strip, a citizen of the sovereign Palestinian state can expect to be back in his or her hometown of Hebron in the West Bank in well under an hour. All you have to do is hop on the country's smooth-running high-speed rail line, which links the two parts of the country to one another by crossing international borders and cutting across miles of Israel's Negev Desert.

Of course, the above scenario – long considered a vital building block of any future Palestinian state – exists only on the drawing boards. At present, the Gaza Strip has no functioning airport, and it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a Palestinian to get from Rafah to Hebron.

While the idea for a rail line may seem like a distant dream – especially in light of the looming Israeli disengagement from Gaza and the events of the last several days, which have seen Palestinian terrorists launch hundreds of rockets and shells at Jewish settlements in Gaza and the Negev town of Sderot – researchers at the Rand Corporation insist that it's not outside the realm of possibility.

"This sounds really wild-eyed, but it's actually not," said Steven Simon, senior analyst for the Rand Corporation, a nearly 50-year-old nonprofit research firm, which among other things is known for developing technology utilized by America's space program.

Simon, a former National Security Council member who spoke in Center City last week at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council, told his audience that while the creation of a Palestinian state is considered by many, including the U.S. government, to be an essential ingredient for stability and peace in the Middle East, too little thought has been given to the nuts and bolts of how it would actually function.

"The bulk of Israeli opinion is that a successful Palestinian state is in Israel's interests," said Simon. "It will require good government, or else all the money that's provided will be for nothing, as it has been for much of the last 10 years."

'We Had to Free Our Minds'
With a population expected to double by the year 2020, coupled with limited natural resources and fresh water supplies, and an underdeveloped infrastructure hindered by more than a decade of neglect and corruption, the future Palestine's success as an emergent nation is far from guaranteed under the best of circumstances, according to Simon.

Some two-dozen urban planners, economists and architects funded by private donors spent two years in the West Bank and Gaza Strip trying to come up with a plan outlining how such a state could overcome such significant hurdles.

In deciphering their ideas, the researchers presupposed a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority already existed, without offering a specific vision of what that settlement might look like. Another assumption for their project is the notion that Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis had virtually stopped.

But how useful can it be to discuss a scenario so far from reality?

"We had to free our minds from the shackles that the current situation imposes on our imaginations," replied Simon.

The Rand findings – which they presented last week to P.A. head Mahmoud Abbas, who reportedly expressed enthusiasm – calls for $33 billion in public and private investment in the Palestinian state over a 10-year period.

The bulk of that money would go toward the creation of "the Arc," an infrastructure artery, according to Simon.

At its core, the Arc, named for its shape, would consist of a high-speed rail line that would connect cities in Gaza to the West Bank, where it would follow a natural ridge line and would not disrupt any existing Jewish settlements. The entire transit system would cover slightly more than 100 miles, a scale akin to the rail infrastructure that operates in California's San Francisco Bay Area.

The Arc – which would require thousands of Palestinians working inside Israel proper to complete the span across the Negev desert – would also include a truck route, national water carrier, energy transmission and telecommunication lines.

Simon said that further development in Palestinian urban centers would revolve around this artery. He said that Rand researchers believe that such development should aim to keep population density at about 30,000 people per square mile, roughly the equivalent of Brooklyn, in order to maximize limited space without packing people into neighborhoods too tightly.

"This can work," Simon assured the audience. "The boy does get the girl in the feature."

Needless to say, not everyone in the audience was quite so optimistic.

"It assumed that there is a peaceable kingdom in the Middle East," said Robert Freedman, a Center City attorney who serves as chair of the board of trustees for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank.

"This is like saying, if you could get a rocket ship to the moon at the cost of $50 bucks, wouldn't a lot of people want to go? It's all very interesting, but it's got nothing to do with reality."

Freedman also said the proposal resembled the 1950s, Robert Moses-style top-down urban planning, which over the years has largely been discredited.

"Something should grow from the bottom organically," he said. "You don't suddenly go in with some bright idea."

Still, some found that the Power Point presentation, complete with schematics, offered reason for hope.

Bella Schafer, who described herself as a fourth-generation Jerusalemite who now lives in the Philadelphia area, said she had to believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence with Palestinians – and that the ideas sounded plausible.

"Especially the trains," she said. "I can see it."



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