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The Israeli Withdrawal

Envisaging Ways to Get a Palestine on Track

Doug Suisman, a Santa Monica urban designer, advocates building a high-speed railway.

August 24, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

With limited exposure to the Middle East, Doug Suisman has drawn on his experience designing public spaces and transit systems for Los Angeles to help him with a daunting task: envisioning the new state of Palestine.

In years past, the idea of an independent and economically viable Palestine seemed too far-fetched to contemplate. But with Jewish settlers now evacuated from the Gaza Strip and Israel intent on turning the territory over to the Palestinian Authority, the notion has become less abstract.

Even so, Suisman's vision requires getting beyond years of intractable violence, border disputes and failed peace plans. His proposal has its roots in a rosy scenario far removed from gritty realities.

"We started with the assumption that a peace accord had been reached and a Palestinian state had been established," said Suisman, 50, an urban designer and architect based in Santa Monica. "We asked ourselves, 'What then?' We were looking for strategies to help a new Palestinian state succeed."

His work is part of a two-year, $3-million Rand Corp. project to determine whether an independent Palestine -- made up of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank -- could succeed in the volatile region. Rand is a nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica.

Working with maps and projections of a near-doubling of population in 15 years (to 6.6 million), Suisman and a colleague early last year began imagining a high-speed railway that would run 70 miles through the West Bank. It would link Jenin in the north with Hebron in the south, then swerve through Israel's Negev desert to connect the West Bank to the Gaza Strip -- a total of about 140 miles.

Alongside the line would stretch an aqueduct, a fiberoptic cable trench, power lines, a toll road and a narrow ribbon of parkland. Suisman has dubbed the ensemble "the Arc," after the gently curved portion that would hug the West Bank mountain ridges that divide the Mediterranean ecosystem to the west from the arid slopes on the east.

The proposal also seeks to foster a strong tourism industry and good links between air and ground transportation, which Suisman views as key to a future Palestine's economic viability.

Suisman's concepts are contained in a report called "The Arc: A Formal Structure for a Palestinian State," which was released in April. It accompanied another Rand report titled "Building a Successful Palestinian State," which recommends steps the Palestinians, Israelis, the U.S. and the rest of the international community could take to ensure the success of a Palestinian state.

The studies were funded in large part by California-based donors: David Richards, a financier based in Santa Monica, and his wife, Carol; and Guilford "Gil" Glazer, a Beverly Hills builder of shopping centers and other commercial properties.

Before launching the project, Suisman, who was reared in a progressive Jewish family, had been to the Middle East only once, as an 18-year-old who journeyed to Israel in 1972. "The powerful, arid landscape made an enormous impression," he said in an interview at his Santa Monica Canyon home. Having spent time with Palestinians, he says, he understands their "incredible feeling for the dirt, the stone, the trees and their profound attachment to the land."

The Arc treats Palestine as an urban space, with specific areas dedicated to high-density residences. Mass transportation stations would be centered not in city centers but rather five to 16 miles east. They would be connected to the urban centers by express and local bus lines. Development would spring up along those "lateral boulevards."

Such ideas came logically to Suisman, whose firm developed the graphic and architectural design for Los Angeles' Metro Rapid bus system.

A key goal with the Arc project was to avoid the sort of sprawl and congestion that are the bane of Southern California.

"Learning from the experience of Los Angeles and most of the rest of the world's cities," Suisman said, "we tried to show the consequences of urban growth in Palestine based on the automobile, as compared with the benefits of moderating auto use by providing a really good public transportation system."

Suisman cited a disused railroad right of way that runs through the center of the Gaza Strip's four main cities.

"We shared with the Palestinians our experience in Los Angeles of having sold off those rights of way and then having to buy them back for public transit at an enormous cost," Suisman said. "We suggested that the Gaza right of way, which is now abandoned and strewn with garbage, was actually a resource of enormous value."

Over the last five months, Suisman has traveled four times to the Middle East, spending time in Gaza and other parts of the region. Soon after he briefed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in July, Abbas approved the formation of a panel of key ministers to study Rand's recommendations and look at the possibility of integrating them into a long-term plan.

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