One issue has always been at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle: land and land use. For decades, Israel has had unilateral power to plan and implement housing and other construction projects and to limit or withhold construction permits sought by Palestinians. This imbalance of power has had two important consequences.
First, and most important, it has brought the Oslo "peace process" to a halt. Continued expansion of existing Israeli settlements and the initiation of new projects (epitomized by the Har Homa development) have convinced Palestinians that the Oslo process will never deliver the coherent territory required for an independent Palestinian state.
Secondly, the imbalance of power removed both opportunities and incentives for the development of Palestinian land-use-planning institutions. Thus, even in the increasingly remote event that Palestinians do achieve control over a viable territory, they will have to begin planning from practically zero.
Concern about this second consequence prompted a series of conferences which led, ultimately, to The Reconstruction of Palestine: Urban and Rural Development, edited by A.B. Zahlan. The time lapse between the earliest conference (autumn 1995) and the publication of the book (year-end 1997) may explain the optimistic, positive approach which permeates the chapters. At the time the project was initiated, the "peace process" still seemed to be advancing and the imminent return of territory seemed plausible.
Specialists, both Palestinian and non-Palestinian, contributed chapters covering such subjects as housing quality and adequacy, land use and tenure, building codes and standards, urban planning, the protection of architectural and cultural heritages, the provision of financial services (especially home mortgages), and the development of the construction industry. The strength of the book is that it presents and summarizes a range of policy options without attempting to impose a single viewpoint.
To readers familiar with what has happened in the occupied territories since the first Oslo accord in 1993 - the steady decline of income and living standards, the sharp rise in unemployment, the territorial "closures" and the near total disillusionment of the Palestinian public with the "peace process" - The Reconstruction of Palestine will seem either a breath of fresh air or an exercise in pure fantasy.
Contributors contemplate the potential return to Palestinian territory of up to one million of the perhaps four million Palestinians now living in exile, and consider the housing and infrastructure challenges such a return would entail. Authors explore the experiences of various countries - both within and outside the Arab world - seeking models for future Palestinian building codes. One specialist describes regulatory and fiscal measures which would promote energy conservation; another highlights ways of ensuring universal access for the disabled.
The Reconstruction of Palestine courageously faces both immediate problems and more expansive questions which today remain tantalizingly outside the bounds of Palestinian control. It is encouraging that Palestinian thinkers already are engaged with critical issues over which they have long had no influence. It is discouraging that they may never achieve sufficient territorial independence to test their ideas.