A Template for Palestine—For a Postwar, Two-State Future

The night of October 5, 2023, found the engineer Shireen Shelleh at a dinner she had dreamed about for years. Inside the boardroom at the headquarters of the Bank of Palestine in Ramallah, she took her seat at a long conference table among 30 others, mostly members of the Palestinian business elite. A few seats away sat her design colleague, an Israeli-born architect.

Shelleh and her companions had gathered to discuss a single urgent question: how to revive the Arc?

The Arc had been a visionary study conceived in 2005 by the RAND corporation. The proposal had been among the grandest of ideas and ideals: to remake the economy, infrastructure, and transportation system of the West Bank and Gaza. If it had worked, its creators believed, it would have laid the foundation for an economically vibrant and peaceful Palestine.

And now this handful of believers were at it again. RAND, the nonprofit think tank, had contracted with those dining that night, a group that, with missionary zeal, had committed $2 million. Budget line items were being finalized, timetables locked in. The updated plan would be called “A Spatial Vision for a Successful Palestinian State”—a monumental undertaking that would not only incorporate design but analyze a labyrinth of fiscal and security issues. Everyone present understood how their enterprise would likely be received by the world: Another plan for Palestine? Wait until your conceptions come up against reality.

At 40, the chic Shelleh, with her red fingernails and glamorous aura, owns one of the largest engineering companies in the West Bank. A doctor’s daughter, she is part of the sizable community of Palestinian executives, PhDs, and business owners. “Many people in the West do not understand that there is a highly educated professional class here,” Shelleh told me. Among her key associates, tasked with helping to make the vision real again, would be Kobi Ruthenberg, an Israeli American architect and urban planner who had worked on a design appendix attached to the Geneva Accords, a 2003 framework for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

This would be the first time Shelleh had joined forces on a project with an Israeli. The revival of the Arc, for that matter, would finally enable Ruthenberg, 43, who had grown up an hour away, in Jerusalem, to do something he had never done: set foot in Ramallah to work on an all-Palestinian initiative.

Shireen Shelleh in Rabat, Morocco.Photograph by Alex Majoli.

Zooming in on one of the room’s three TV screens was the man behind it all: Samer Khoury. “I just want to see progress in my lifetime,” he told the assembled. “I want my country back.” A global construction magnate and scion of one of the region’s most powerful Palestinian families, Khoury has an impressive pedigree. In the 1980s, his uncle Hasib Sabbagh was a pivotal intermediary to then US secretary of state George Shultz, attempting to get America to recognize what seemed a less militant Palestine Liberation Organization. The extended Khoury family, in the words of Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, “has long been the backbone of an effort to create an independent Palestinian state.” Khoury, the primary funder of the revived RAND study, made it clear that his ultimate mission was to evolve and stabilize the West Bank and Gaza, whose citizens were fed up with the mutually assured violence of bombings, reprisals, and terror—and the endless humiliations that had resulted from decades of Israeli occupation. In the past, he had worked with others at the table, attempting to come up with a plan to fix Gaza’s economy, but the enterprise had always been thwarted by Hamas’s agenda to eradicate Israel. This night was focused primarily on the West Bank.

If brought to fruition, the reconceived Arc—with its projections of transit hubs; permeable borders; and adequate water, schools, industry, and housing—could revolutionize Palestinian daily life. The plan, as first imagined two decades ago, had included housing for up to 1 million refugees, a fiber-optic network, new roads. There were designs for an airport; a rail link connecting the West Bank and Gaza across an expanse of the Negev desert; border crossings to and from Israel. As The New York Times noted at the time, it was a glimpse of “a reconciling land, post-conflict, post-occupation, post-terrorism.” Over the years, versions of the Arc would inspire think tanks and Middle East leaders. It would be studied among a generation of urban planners. But in the 2000s new fighting ended an uneasy coexistence. The project would be shelved and largely forgotten by all but its creators.

Khoury, the chairman of his family’s $5 billion construction empire, Consolidated Contractors Company—a builder of everything from power plants to palaces across the Arab world—had become so frustrated with the existential and political stasis of his country that he again sought RAND’s assistance, telling executives in an early call: “I want to revive the Arc.”

Over the past 20 years, he had spent millions making Bethlehem more welcoming to religious pilgrims and tourists. He and other influential Palestinians had engaged a British urban planning firm to plot out how to revitalize Gaza, a venture that had also been sidelined. But for Khoury the larger issue had become: Could the clout of the Palestinian business establishment—beyond the confines of the political power structure—finally create a multibillion-dollar development plan after so many others had imploded? Yes, builders like Khoury would stand to benefit. And from the outside, skeptics could argue that it was sheer folly to forge ahead with proposals until there was a real, sustainable cessation of hostilities. Yet Khoury and his partners were invested in the long term, committed to the notion that a viable megaproject would allow the Palestinian people and a reinvigorated Palestinian Authority (PA) to finally control their own land, livelihoods, and nation-state. They would go around the politics to secure a better life.

Their foes were numerous. Allies of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who at times have tried to equate the PA, which administers the West Bank, with Hamas, the extremist authority entrenched in Gaza—have dismissed the plans by Palestinians to reconceive their own society as a billionaire’s boondoggle that was ripe for misappropriating funds. And yet construction and corruption in pursuit of progress have been virtually a tradition the world over—the cost of doing business when it comes to nation building.

Around the boardroom table that night was not a syndicate, however, but a coterie of business veterans and policy thinkers, well-known in the halls of Davos, who were steeped in the layered agendas—and murk—of Palestinian realpolitik. Their portfolios spanned telecom and real estate, commerce and finance. Hosting the session was Hashim Shawa, chairman of the Bank of Palestine, a partner on the project. Also on hand was Shelly Culbertson, RAND’s refugee expert; coleader of the planning study, she had written extensively on attempts to rebuild Mosul after the Iraq War. Present as well was the soon-to-be prime minister of the PA, Mohammad Mustafa, head of the quasi-sovereign Palestinian Investment Fund. An adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime president of Palestine, Mustafa appeared to be the establishment choice to try to curb the corruption and fix the inefficiencies that had paralyzed the PA. All of the inevitable caveats were unspoken: Would a reconstituted PA recognize Israel and normalize relations with the Jewish state? Would the PA reject Hamas and accept agreements with Israel and neighboring states? What role, if any, would Hamas and its leaders play, given their sway over a large segment of the Palestinian population? Mustafa’s standing within the group was made complicated by his long association with Abbas, who had run the PA during the years it was accused of various misdeeds. (Such concerns were valid. A subsequent pivotal meeting in April on postwar strategy for Gaza, attended by Arab officials and US secretary of state Antony Blinken, would erupt into a shouting match, according to Axios, when the UAE’s foreign minister lambasted the PA’s proposed reforms, reportedly comparing the Palestinian leadership with “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves” and insisting that the musical-chair maneuvers of “replacing them with one another will only lead to the same result.”)

That said, the presence of the influential Mustafa at the October session seemed to portend that new impetus was coming from the Palestinian financial powers in the territories and the diaspora. They had a sense of momentum, knowing that Saudi Arabia and Israel might soon agree to mutual recognition. “We need a plan on the table from the moment the Saudis announce their deal with Israel,” several at the dinner decreed.

The new Arc team was the embodiment in miniature of what a new solution could achieve.

Even as a kid growing up in Ramallah, Shelleh had an obsession with the infrastructure of her country. In high school, to avoid the dangers of taking public transportation, she had been forced to walk miles to classes during the second intifada of 2000 due to persistent tit-for-tat bombings and rocket barrages in which Israel responded to attacks from militant members of Arafat’s PA.

“I looked at the conditions of the roads of my country and knew that I would spend my life trying to make things better,” Shelleh told me. “That would become my career.” She studied engineering in Palestine, environmental science in Germany, and business in the US, where she met Israelis for the first time. Shelleh’s cool gaze and cascading blond hair set her apart in the male-dominated business elite—as did her fierce focus and ability to navigate the arcana of Palestinian construction and engineering regulations.

Rob Lane and Kobi Ruthenberg in Dumbo, Brooklyn.Photograph by Frankie Alduino.

Ruthenberg had his own uncommon origin story. The son of an economist, he had grown up not far from the leafy enclave of the American Colony Hotel in the Arab Quarter. But as an Israeli, he had never been allowed to enter Ramallah without elaborate permits. “We lived in a parallel world,” Ruthenberg explained. “Even though Palestinians were my neighbors, we rarely met.” A graduate of Technion, Israel’s MIT, where many of his classmates had been Arab Israelis, he had married an Israeli global consultant and then set up his base in New York. At Technion, he was drawn to designing strategies for cities at the center of conflict.

A generation older than Shelleh and Ruthenberg, Mustafa, named Palestine’s prime minister in March, had learned the hard lessons of the foiled plans for the Arc—but also the inherent opportunities. “I want you to think ‘big picture,’ ” he told his partners. “Don’t be held back by any previous borders—or anything else.” Over and over, the three of them repeated: This was not about making life better under Israeli occupation. This was about a future when there would be two independent nations functioning side by side.

Whatever their views of the moral incongruities and obstacles, each attendee understood that to make any headway meant that the rancor of the past had to be put on hold. And so, on October 5, as they finished their meal, they pledged to reconvene before the end of the month to finish contracts and assignments. As they said their goodbyes, several noticed a painting on one of the conference room walls. It depicted an abstract rendering of a peaceful orange grove, a familiar sight on both sides of the border—and a symbol of what they were trying to achieve.

In his car that evening, Ruthenberg, along with RAND’s C. Ross Anthony, the project’s coleader, drove back in the moonlight to the American Colony, traversing the hills of the West Bank, uneasy about the immense task ahead but also thrilled with a sense of wonder that the Arc was being revived.

On the morning of October 7, Anthony, who had been on the original team 20 years earlier, arrived in Washington, DC, on an overnight flight. A few hours later, he looked at his phone and said, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Suddenly, the group was pinging one another on WhatsApp: Are you okay? As news flashes of the Hamas invasion—and video clips of the ensuing slaughter—filled their screens, the Arc contingent, and the rest of the world, began to grapple with the horror. This was the most devastating one-day strike against Jews since the Holocaust.

In Ramallah, Shelleh frantically tried to reach her team in Gaza by phone, email, text. Fearful of retaliation from the Israeli military, she would keep her children inside for days.

In New York, Ruthenberg tried to persuade his in-laws, who were out of the country, not to return to their home in Ashdod, a city near the music festival where 364 were killed in cold blood. At Kibbutz Be’eri, 1 in 10 residents were murdered. Because Israel is a small country, many in Ruthenberg’s circle were close to a relative of one of the more than 1,200 killed or 240 abducted. Two of Ruthenberg’s cousins were deployed to their military reserve units.

The ferocity of Israel’s response in Gaza would kill thousands, then tens of thousands. A stream of images would create a horrifying blur in the public mind: Israeli grandmothers and toddlers being kidnapped by jubilant members of Hamas; Palestinian rescue workers pulling lifeless children from the rubble; Israelis pleading for their government to negotiate to free their loved ones from the dank Hamas tunnels; 10-year-olds fighting for their lives in Gaza hospitals that lacked medical supplies; Israeli refugees fleeing homes and kibbutzim in search of housing and schools away from the border; Gazans starving, displaced, and displaced again, wondering if this would be the day a bomb would take out their temporary shelter. It was all heartbreaking and infuriating footage. Day after brutal day.

Shelleh’s office in Gaza was destroyed in late October. Members of her team had to be evacuated to Egypt after their apartments were decimated. But in their outreach to one another, after inquiring about their families’ safety, their situation, their state of mind, they would always turn the conversation back to a single subject. The Arc, they believed, was even more urgent now than in 2005. They would not let October 7 stop them, nor Israel’s relentless onslaught.

Samer Khoury in Bethlehem.Courtesy of Samer Khoury.

They agreed to push ahead. Out of the dust of World War II had arisen the modern and eventually thriving cities of Berlin and Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Out of the bloodshed of a string of devastating wars, and then the first intifada of 1987, had come the Oslo Accords, in which Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had taken the first steps toward what many then believed might become the long-held dream of a two-state solution.

Within weeks, RAND gave the Arc team a revised assignment, not financed by the Palestinian establishment. Yes, concentrate on the West Bank. But add a more pressing priority: how to rebuild Gaza on the day after?

By December, Ruthenberg, Anthony, and the RAND team would attend a secret meeting convened by the British think tank Portland Trust and the urban planner Chris Choa to begin gaming out a spatial plan for Gaza. However far-fetched it seemed, they were already working with digital maps, tracing pens, and Sharpies.

The hastily gathered donors and architects had agreed: All phones would be left outside; no governments would be involved. Choa would describe to me the fear of misinterpretation that had led to the emergency session: “If you are trying to solve a problem in Gaza, does that mean you are anti-Israel? If you are trying to create remediation with Israel, does that mean you are anti-Palestinian? Words get twisted, so it makes it impossible to have a conversation that benefits a large number of people.” At that London session, RAND’s Shelly Culbertson had spoken about her years in Mosul and the tragic time it took to clear the rubble from the aftermath of the war, noting how few refugees ever returned. “When she sat down, the room was in stunned silence,” Anthony said.

For those who had been on RAND’s original Arc effort, it was hard not to think: Here we go again.

Gaza is a 7-mile-wide, 25-mile- long strip of oceanfront land to Israel’s southwest. Long controlled by Egypt, the territory had been a refuge for Palestinians fleeing the violence set off once Israel gained its independence in 1948. After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel took over; in time, its occupation produced a state of siege. While tens of thousands of Gazans found work in the strip and in Israel, they chafed under Israel’s security restrictions and increasing privations, the latter the result of the occupation and, to some degree, the alleged graft and neglect of Palestinian officials.

The Oslo deal brought semiautonomy for Gazans, but the advancements were short-lived. Israel accused Arafat of being unable to keep the peace. A resurgent PLO caused Israel to clamp down even more. Hamas and forces of the Islamic Jihad ramped up attacks in response to Israel’s construction of new settlements. By 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza. A year later, its citizens voted in Hamas, an organization devoted not only to Palestinian statehood but also to the annihilation of Israel.

In 2007 Hamas and the PA’s Fatah turned on each other in the Battle of Gaza. The Palestinians’ unity government collapsed. Egypt sealed its borders to avoid an influx of displaced Gazans. The Arab world blamed Israel for much of the turmoil, yet regional governments were also at fault, some seemingly weary of having to perpetually accommodate and fund the Palestinian cause, others newly engaged in economic ventures with Israel. For its part, Israel fatally ignored every warning sign of the catastrophe that its leaders had helped ignite through occupation and growing land grabs—not to mention its clandestine sanction of Qatar’s financial support to prop up Hamas at the expense of the PA.

During a pause in the conflict, a year before Israel’s withdrawal, came the original Arc plan.

“A Blueprint for Palestine ‘the Day After Peace,’ ” read the New York Times headline in May 2005. The story, by James Bennet, detailed the extraordinary journey of the Arc and the naive genius of its creator, the urbane and impeccably tailored Doug Suisman, who had helped reconceive Downtown Los Angeles.

When RAND first contacted him, Suisman said he had not been in Israel since his prep school days, nor had he ever been to the Palestinian territories. (While Suisman was growing up in Connecticut, his parents were such supporters of Israel that when then foreign minister Rabin came to the US, he sometimes stayed at their home.) Suisman later wondered if his total unfamiliarity with the West Bank and Gaza had freed him to imagine an urban planning solution in formal, abstract terms, based on topography and unburdened by the mire of politics.

A few weeks after the October 7 attacks, I tried to track down Suisman, determined to understand the fate of the Arc and unaware that a new project was underway.

I was spurred on by the anti-Muslim hate crimes I read about in news accounts and by the antisemitic assaults, which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, had tripled. Synagogues had brought in extra armed guards. I saw posters of abducted Israelis on Park Avenue signposts—defaced in antisemitic rage. Meanwhile, there were reports of Orthodox Jewish thugs assassinating Palestinian olive growers in West Bank villages. Waves of Israeli bombs were being dropped on Gaza in what amounted to the collective punishment of a population; over time, 70 percent of the civilian victims were women and children. Tens of thousands of Palestinian innocents would lose their lives, their loved ones, their dreams.

Doug Suisman in Okayama, Japan.Moye Thompson.

From the start I kept thinking back to Suisman and the Arc. I wondered how Gaza and the West Bank would have fared if the Arc, or many past plans, had been implemented. I wondered how different the current wave of protests would be had the students and their allies, instead of getting their history lessons from TikTok—or narrow caricatures of a centuries-old conflict—understood two peoples’ nuanced narratives and the motives of all the high-minded thinkers on both sides who had tried to find a way out of the morass.

And so, a few weeks after those first horrors, I found myself with Suisman at his modernist house and design studio in the Santa Monica Canyon, where we had first met in 2005. The atmosphere back then had been electrifying: Suisman had shown me a series of slides and projections superimposed on the West Bank and Gaza that had just been published in an elegant RAND book, The Arc: A Formal Structure for a Palestinian State.

Suisman and RAND, as the Times noted, had focused not on the political aspects of the borders but on what street-level Palestine could actually look like. RAND’s analysts had predicted that the population of the territories, then 3.6 million, could nearly double over the following 15 years. (It is now 5.4 million; 360,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem.) And where would a new government house the million-plus refugees expected to return from abroad if there was, as many hoped after Oslo, a fully recognized Palestinian state?

Overlooking the Pacific, Suisman gestured toward a nearby canyon. “That’s where Ann Kerr lives. Ann Kerr is how I got started on this whole thing.”

The widow of Malcolm Kerr, the former president of the American University in Beirut, Ann Kerr had lived in Lebanon for years when her husband was assassinated in 1984 by Islamic Jihad forces aligned with Hezbollah. At the time, her son Steve—the future NBA champion and head coach of the Golden State Warriors—was still in school. After her husband’s death, she returned Stateside to teach at UCLA and has since worked tirelessly to bring peace to the region.

In 2004, as President George W. Bush and his advisers were in the throes of what would prove to be calamitous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Suisman went to a picnic lunch at the Kerrs. “What do you do?” Suisman asked a man next to him. His response: “I’m working on a RAND project that is trying to envision a successful Palestinian state.” The picnic companion was Glenn Robinson, the Middle East scholar. “At the time,” Suisman recalled, “I was working on bus stops in LA, which is not to put down bus stops, but the scale was completely different.” Soon after the lunch, Suisman, thanks to Robinson’s urging, got a call from RAND.

“They said, ‘How would you like to come up with a way to address housing solutions for Palestinians returning to the West Bank and Gaza? We have something like $10,000 in our budget to cover your expenses. Oh, and by the way, the funders are going to be at RAND in six weeks and we will need your plans.’ I said, ‘Let me get this straight. You are asking me to help solve the most intractable conflict in the world, in an area that is not my specialty, in six weeks? I am willing to give it a try. But I have no maps. I need detailed topographical maps of the cities and terrain immediately.’ ”

Suisman signed a contract and waited for the maps. “A week later, a car pulled up at my house and a RAND researcher arrived with a box of maps a foot high—half of them were in Russian and the other half were basically from US military intelligence, marked SECRET.” Suisman, out of his comfort zone, pulled in Robert Lane, a friend from their Columbia grad school days, then, as now, serving on the Regional Plan Association that helped rebuild downtown New York after 9/11. If anyone understood how to reconceptualize a devastated urban environment, Lane did. He quickly made his way out to California.

“The Russian maps were fantastic,” Suisman remembered, “once we cleared away the Cyrillic.” Their tools were marking pens and tracing paper superimposed on the population centers, roads, and high ground. They searched for connectable shapes, noting the clusters where many Palestinians resided—near the western hills, where rain fell more frequently. Their first day on the project, Suisman turned to Lane and asked, “What if we start by connecting the clusters? Hold on. I have to just draw a line.”

With that, he sketched a curve—an arc shape—that moved across the ridges of the West Bank. It was such a simple thing: a semicircle on a piece of paper. Suisman recalled, “Rob, who has a great sense of humor, said, ‘Hmm. I wish I had thought of that.’ So, that’s where we started, always mindful of Gaza. The thing about the ridgeline is: If you kept extending that curve, it got you down to Gaza.” From that gesture and that geography, the project derived its name. Independently, both men had been working for years on projects that prioritized connectivity, transportation, streets, public spaces. But while architects focus on individual sites, said Suisman, “our approach was how all the systems had to fit together.” Suisman devised a 70-mile high-speed railroad to run along the uplands, linking Jenin in the north with Hebron in the south, snaking through the Negev to connect the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. They plotted out train stations, hub roads, housing close to city centers, parks, a tollway, power lines, open border crossings.

To many, Suisman’s original Arc seemed a fantasy. “A fable for adults,” Ha’aretz columnist Meron Benvenisti called it. The idea of a Palestinian state controlling its own borders, circa 2005—while suicide bombers were infiltrating Tel Aviv—seemed beyond hubris.

For the next five years, Suisman would be in and out of Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel, where generations of journalists and intellectuals have met over buffets of hummus and feta in the limestone courtyard. During the Six-Day War, the hotel had been used as a hospital for Palestinians; bullet holes still pockmark the walls.

Suisman presented his plan to Palestinian leaders, hoping that RAND’s reputation as a nonpartisan nonprofit would offer him validation in dealing with PLO officials. “In America, the left views RAND as a cold warrior,” Suisman said. “In Ramallah, Fatah and the PA see RAND as ‘Wow, the American government is coming in.’ We had to explain that RAND was not the government. We had very good meetings. They kept inviting us back. But one night, we were summoned to a dinner where Palestinian lawyers, who negotiated with the Israelis on all kinds of issues, pressed us.” Their concern, Suisman explained, was the settlements. “We were trying to keep the borders clear for agricultural developments and move the population closer in for the human connection. The lawyers were skeptical. They thought we were trying to keep this land clear for the Israelis.” In its report, RAND had avoided the issue: “We have chosen for the purposes of this study to set the questions of Israeli settlements aside.” To the Palestinian analysts, Suisman recalled, that seemed code for camouflaging Israel’s plans to take more land—and a wily way for builders to cash in on Israel’s announcement that it would pull out of Gaza.

C. Ross Anthony and Shelly Culbertson in Washington, D.C.Photograph by Frankie Alduino.

Suisman persisted, making the rounds at the American Colony. Also staying at the hotel was Bush’s special envoy to Gaza, James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank. (Wolfensohn died in 2020.) Before Wolfensohn took the envoy post, he had consulted with Martin Indyk, who had been Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel and whom Wolfensohn had known since their school days in Australia.

“Jim, do not take this job,” Indyk warned him. “Bush and Condi Rice are using you. They want a major financier as a figurehead to make the world think they are serious about fixing the problem. You are being played.” But Wolfensohn could not stop himself—the mission was too important. He told Bush and Rice, according to his memoir, that he would focus only on Gaza’s and the West Bank’s economic possibilities. And he set about doing so, as America’s liaison to an alliance (the UN, US, European Union, and Russia) that hoped to devise a fiscal plan for the territories.

Soon after arriving, Wolfensohn, with his impeccable reputation and extensive Rolodex, raised $3 billion to launch banks and West Bank businesses, hurtling ahead to establish an economic beachhead before Israel’s Gaza departure. “He was in a fever of setting up deal after deal,” Indyk told me recently. “Jim was being Jim. He could operate with a speed and efficiency no one could match.”

In the frenetic atmosphere of “democracy building” (three years after American troops had swept into the Iraq quagmire), Mahmoud Abbas had won election as president of the PA. Intense pressure started coming from Bush and Rice for Palestinians to hold a delayed legislative election. “Everyone opposed it,” Indyk told me. “The Palestinian Authority, the Israelis. It was a blueprint for a total disaster.” The reason: Hamas and its proxy groups had a formidable political organization. Their strategy was to go from village to village, enlisting the most prominent merchants and local leaders to their cause. In contrast, the PA essentially idled in its offices.

Right before Suisman had flown over to Israel, he recalled, he and C. Ross Anthony had met with Wolfensohn in New York City. “Wolfensohn gave us an hour on the way to the airport,” Suisman recounted. “At the end of it, he said, ‘I think the president would like to see this.’ ” In the same period, Suisman and Anthony conferred with State Department officials who forwarded the plan to Elliott Abrams, then Bush’s deputy national security adviser. “We all had a very positive reaction,” Abrams told me. “It came at a moment of great hope.” Suisman elaborated: “Arafat had just died. Abbas had become president. The thinking was, There’s actually an opportunity—this might be the moment for something dramatic.”

In Suisman’s view, he wanted to alter both sides’ perceptions: “I imagined a two-sided mirror. Everyone looks at their side and they can only see themselves. As an assimilated American Jew, I suddenly had a chance to go through the mirror.” Suisman knew that, for most Palestinians, they could only see their own suffering, which had stemmed from the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of 1948, when violence erupted as the Jewish state was created. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had lost their homes. Villages were burned to the ground. “I thought, Both sides of the mirror are true, but we have to get rid of the mirror.”

It was not to be. The legislative election, which Hamas won handily in 2006, brought pure chaos. Its militants turned on the PA, murdering scores of Palestinians, throwing some of them off of buildings.

In January I found myself on the way to an office that Ruthenberg maintains in Dumbo. Arc veteran Rob Lane, whose post-9/11 projects had taught him how to grapple with the endless delays of Manhattan redevelopment, had tapped Ruthenberg—the New York partner of ORG Permanent Modernity, a large Brussels planning company—to run the operation. With his silver hair and a neatly trimmed beard, Lane, 66, is a Harvard Loeb fellow who favors the dark jeans and black running shoes that seem to be a uniform among urban planners. Ruthenberg tends toward elegant sweaters and designer glasses.

“We were 50,000 feet up in the air,” Lane told me, describing Suisman’s dream of connecting the territories. “Now our challenge in the new Arc was to bring it down to six feet off the ground: How can we make this actually work?” Suisman, while hopeful that Lane and his cohorts can make real progress, told me, sadly: “The war could set them back a generation.”

Some cynics, of course, see urban planning during wartime as a guise for opportunistic profiteers to circle a conflict zone like vultures. Others see well-intentioned individuals who can come off as predatory. Jared Kushner, for instance—whose private equity firm received a $2 billion investment from the Saudis and who, as Trump’s Middle East envoy, was the architect of the Abraham Accords, intended to strengthen ties “between Israel and its neighbors”—has touted Gaza’s “waterfront property” as “very valuable,” leaving some with the impression that Israel might want to continue to displace residents while they “clean it up.” In the main, however, the truly engaged players in a future Gaza—regardless of any other motives—are governments and businesses driven by civic and humanitarian concerns, genuinely determined to find a way forward.

In fact, a derby race of sorts has emerged among competing “day after” plans. One formula floated by some close to Netanyahu: a consortium including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the US sharing the oversight of Gaza. Then there’s the Vandenberg Plan, which envisions an Arab mandate run by the Saudis and the Gulf states, to someday turn Gaza into a version of Dubai. Such a plan, being promoted by a team that includes Abrams, would give cover to the Israelis, allowing them to avoid the debacle of an endless occupation and to circumvent the agonies that might come under a new Hamas-run entity, aided by Iran. These plans are political and economic, but all will require a spatial vision for the West Bank and Gaza. Participants in the respective proposals either collaborate or are in talks with one another.

Late last year and into 2024, Ruthenberg and Lane had been working nonstop. They met a tight mid-April deadline to deliver the Gaza design proposal to RAND; their West Bank study is due midsummer. The weekend before one of my visits to their Dumbo office, pro-Palestinian protesters had amassed on the Brooklyn Bridge. Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister, in a show of defiance toward Netanyahu—in whose unity government he had served before resigning in protest in June—was on his way to Washington to meet with Kamala Harris. That day’s New York Times featured three full pages of Palestinian war dead—scholarship students, new mothers, accountants, teachers.

The travails facing the Arc team are ones that Suisman had never imagined on his hardest days: “The most devastating urban warfare in the modern record,” so The Wall Street Journal stated. By mid-December, 29,000 bombs, munitions, and shells had been dropped on the strip. Most hospitals were shut and nearly 70 percent of Gaza’s homes destroyed, along with ancient mosques and Byzantine churches, not to mention olive and citrus groves, which had been staples of Gaza’s agricultural economy.

Each aspect of development in the territories has always had to take into account the terrain, the materials, bureaucratic snags, and an Israeli mindset and system that treats Palestinians as second-class citizens. But of all the inequities of the occupation, Shireen Shelleh told me, those involving water rights are among the most contentious. The 600,000 Israeli settlers in Area C (administered by Israel), for example, are allotted six times the amount of water designated for the nearly 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

A part of Shelleh’s skill set is to break through the grinding obstacles of dealing with the Joint Water Committee, which have forever haunted her projects. In one of our first conversations, she recounted her firm’s ongoing 12-year struggle to get a single water permit for a West Bank sanitation facility it had developed, bordering an Arab village and a Jewish settlement in Area C.

“This is about wastewater,” she said. “But every time I go to meet with the [Israel Defense Forces] chief engineer, I am brought into an office where a gun is on the desk. The meetings are always a version of the same power dynamic that results in nothing being accomplished.”

The RAND team is imagining a world in which barriers like these will be diminished or nonexistent due to the new state’s self-reliance. Lane insisted at one point that while the war’s daily drumbeat can stifle one’s outlook, “we are not going to wring our hands and say, ‘Nothing can be done now.’ ” Ruthenberg concurred: “There is an acknowledgment that there is a horrible thing going on. Then we have to kind of switch gears and say, ‘What are we drawing next?’ ”

In Ruthenberg’s small office, there are briefing books and binders with plans that have already been put forward by USAID, the Portland Trust, the UN. “When we started,” Lane remembered, “everyone had planning fatigue. Every Middle East think tank and academic have all come up with plans! When we would start meetings, the first thing anyone would say was, ‘How do you think you can make this work when no one else has been able to?’ ”

The answer, Lane and Ruthenberg and Shelleh fervently hope, resides in the prestige and power of their partners, who operate on a global level. This is not uncharted territory. After the 2014 Gaza war, AECOM, one of the largest infrastructure consultants in the world, along with Chris Choa, its then head of urban development, were brought in by Samer Khoury and other Palestinian corporate leaders to come up with yet another plan to restructure Gaza. (The overture would presage the outreach to RAND.)

AECOM was intrigued. This assignment was different, recalled Kamel Husseini, the coordinator of the effort: “The funding would come from the private sector—no governmental or political entities.” What’s more, AECOM would have to sidestep Hamas. “You had to engage all the Gaza experts except the de facto government.”

“Everybody was happy,” said Husseini, now an official of the Bank of Palestine. “We got a nice plan called Gaza 2050, Connected Gaza, Global Palestine. And we sent it to everybody. But nothing happened. Because Gaza was not well-governed and we could not get equipment or any project through.” Thwarted by the roadblocks in Gaza, Husseini turned back to AECOM: “Why don’t we try the West Bank?”

RAND would finally sign on, joining forces with Khoury and the Arc team, with the idea that they would pinpoint plans for the West Bank. “We did not have a clue the war would happen,” Husseini told me. “And now the Israel government is a bit more hard-line. But we insisted, like we did with Gaza, that we would engage everybody—the Palestinian Authority, the local experts, developers, and also the Israelis and the international community. We worded it in a way that would not allow any political hiccups. The idea was that we would tie the work of AECOM and RAND. Now we are in the middle of it.” Choa’s new Gaza report, expected this month and funded by Portland Trust, builds on his work from a decade ago.

Lane and Ruthenberg have been in the middle of it all for a while. Two weeks before the war began, they toured the West Bank and Gaza extensively. While Lane found Ramallah to be “a bustling, modern city,” its systems were archaic. At the ministry of transport, housed in a modern state-of-the-art office, they were handed a telephone book–size tome of infrastructure requests. Devise transit hubs connecting the main cities. Create a consolidated bus system. Fix the bottleneck in the road connecting Jerusalem to Bethlehem. In place of a functioning hierarchy to handle it all, the territory had, in Lane’s view, “a catch-as-catch-can service,” operated by a patchwork of private companies.

In their jammed weeks of meetings, Lane and Ruthenberg noticed deep sensitivities about any open discussion of the territories’ political future. The local consensus seemed to be that there would be no reconfigured Palestine until there was what was referred to as “legitimacy of governance.” That meant new leadership in both Palestine and Israel. While the PA has long reviled Hamas, many believe that if open elections were held today, Hamas, not the PA, would probably win in the West Bank and Gaza.

Given this thicket, the planners have chosen to focus on projects that can be feasibly completed in the next several years: power plants, sanitation, roads. As Lane put it: “You don’t have to settle the issue of land swaps or expansion or who controls the West Bank to understand that there are infrastructure projects necessary for this place to be viable. It’s not like any of this changed after October 7. Ironically, there is more talk, globally, about the two-state solution since before we went.”

During their trip, Lane said, in every government building they noticed large portraits of PA president Abbas and the PLO godfather Arafat. “It was like ‘George Washington Is Here’ everywhere we went.” In a meeting Shelleh, Lane, and Ruthenberg had with then prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, he stressed, according to Lane, that among his top priorities were “symbols of national identity. Airports. A national stadium. A working Parliament building. It was very clear that his interests were not just limited to energy projects.”

How to make this happen? For Khoury, who recently discussed his vision with White House and State Department officials, the private sector and international community are crucial in accommodating the concerns of Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike: “One reason we have radicals like Hamas and other hard-right movements is because of economic deprivation and poverty. If you create jobs and increase GDP and the well-being of individuals, they will not look for the hard line. Our job is to create jobs so people can put food on the table so they don’t think about hiring machine guns. In our new study, we will identify 50 macro projects, with specifics. And then work with the Israeli community and whoever is in the Palestinian government to get these projects across the finish line.” The initiatives include solar arrays, new agribusinesses, and the development of long unexplored natural gas and oil resources in Gaza, opening a pipeline to Egypt.

When I visited Ruthenberg and Lane in Dumbo in April, they were sprinting to meet the deadline for the Gaza plan. In front of them were digital maps of the strip and a raised projection of the land mass. As Suisman and Lane had done 20 years earlier, they were using markers to draw block-by-block renderings. Now, many areas were dominated by red splotches, denoting massive bomb damage.

From Ramallah, Shelleh and her team were sending ground reports, detailing which areas in Gaza City and Wadi seemed the most suitable for temporary housing or for supplying water and power. They were studying the latest designs for temporary living quarters, which did not resemble the tent cities that are common to many refugee camps. “We are looking at prefabs which could actually be built in Gaza, employing thousands to make their own housing,” Lane said. Theirs was a plan in progress, refinement being added to refinement, all being updated in a technical appendix for a larger “day after” study. “RAND wants to be ready on the ‘day after,’ whenever that is declared.”

I watched silently as their black Sharpies moved across large sheets of tracing paper, focusing on the outer agricultural areas of the Gaza Strip. They drew quickly—squares for apartment blocks and houses, a long black slash for a road. A few weeks later, they handed in their efforts to RAND, proclaiming that the distant Gaza they all envisioned would at last be “sustainable and beautiful.”

Ruthenberg and Lane said they were planning for a quick return to Ramallah for the next phase of development of “prototype strategies that can be deployed across Gaza,” as Lane put it. “We are on a 30-year time schedule.” Hearing my incredulity, he paused, then said, “How they are deployed and exactly where, of course, will be determined by the Palestinians. All we can do is try to give them the toolbox.”

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