French Jewish architect Marc Mimram has an idea that borders on the utopian: to build a huge, multistoried bridge stretching 37 kilometers in order to physically connect the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the two areas under Palestinian Authority rule.
The plan, made public for the first time in the pages of Haaretz, is for a bridge that would rise to a height of 20 meters above the ground, with steel or concrete columns at 250-meter intervals. The bottom story is designated for desalinated water; the two next stories are for vehicle traffic; above them, another waterway brings salt water from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, topped by a story with two-way railroad tracks.
Mimram developed this plan independently in his Paris office, and paid for it out of his own pocket. One of his students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the third generation in a family of architects from Bethlehem, pleaded with him to present it to his parents. Three weeks ago, Mimram came here for a short visit and talked with Palestinian VIPs.
At the cafe where we met, Mimram used a napkin and a pen to explain. "When you create new crossing infrastructure, you contribute to both the places that are connected," he said, drawing a line from right to left. "But at the same time, you hamper the places that are left out." Mimram gestures with his hand above the line. "I am interested in seeing how infrastructure can contribute to the environment and what other roles it can fill.
"Bridges," he continues, "are meant to cross geographic and social borders as well as landscapes. But they can be used to serve other goals. My bridge is a structure with mixed uses."
The southern face of the bridge would be covered with solar panels that in effect would turn it into the largest solar power plant in the world. Unlike previous plans to connect the West Bank with the Gaza Strip, Mimram's suggests one that contributes to Israel as well. Agricultural areas making use of the desalinated water flowing through the bridge would be established along the route, and salt water from the Mediterranean would increase the level of the Dead Sea.
The bridge is planned to stretch in a straight line from Gaza to the southern West Bank, bypassing large concentrations of the Israeli population. Mimram hopes that despite security and environmental issues, the Palestinian Authority and Israel will cooperate to promote the project, which constitutes, in Mimram's words, a "symbol of peace."
The architect admits his idea is naive. Like all architects, he has planned many, many projects that were never built. "I know people will say that it is possible to shoot at Sderot" from the bridge, but he says there will be checkpoints at the entrances and exits, as in airports.
Mimram, 56, is a leading figure in bridge and infrastructure planning around the world. He was educated both as a civil engineer and an architect, and recently planned bridges in Morocco, China and France. One of his best known pedestrian bridges crosses the Rhine at the border between Germany and France, connecting Cologne and Strasbourg. There, too, he encountered sharp disagreements about the character, design and role of the bridge. After prolonged negotiations, the two countries decided to promote the project together.
Mimram often visits Israel. His grandparents lived here, and as a young man he volunteered at Kibbutz Ramot Menashe in the north. He speaks halting Hebrew but says he feels a strong relationship with the country. During our conversation, he often says "our" and "with us" when talking about Israel.
The issue of movement between the West Bank and Gaza was addressed in the mid-1990s (see box ). The goal of a "safe passage" was to create a physical link between the two sections of the Palestinian Authority and ease the passage of merchandise, services and people.
More and less realistic plans for a crossing have been formed over the years, each centered on a clearly political narrative. The plan differences stem mainly from how they approach various threats to security, and from the concern that Israel would be divided in half by massive infrastructure not under its control.
At this point in time, the leading ideas include a 30 to 40 kilometer tunnel which would provide good security but cost a fortune; a deeply-dug road cutting across Israel, with railroad tracks next to it; or a bridge, a relatively simple planning and building project expected to run into sharp opposition from the security apparatus and environmental organizations that will object to building across the entire north of the Negev.
Mimram wants to remain neutral. His plan is the only one until now whose infrastructure would benefit Israel. His bridge has the potential to put the brakes on desertification by giving the go-ahead to intensive agriculture, and the water transported by the bridge could also serve communities close to its path, such as Kiryat Gat. The solar panels would produce alternative energy. A land bridge this long has never been constructed, but is possible from an engineering perspective.
Mimram's project has received support from the Palestinian side. During his visit he met with Jad Isaac, the head of the Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem, a nonprofit that focuses on agriculture, infrastructure and planning in the Palestinian Authority. "Mimram's idea is challenging and thought provoking," Isaac told Haaretz. "We've wasted many years and a lot of money to understand how to connect Gaza to the West Bank, or to save the Dead Sea. What he suggests solves many problems at the same time."
Isaac is convinced that sooner or later Israel will have to promote a solution to connect these two parts of the authority, but he objects completely to a tunnel. "A tunnel is a humiliating solution," he says. "We are not moles and it is impossible to put the Palestinians underground for 40 kilometers. Mimram's project has value as a symbol of cooperation and a true peace: a win-win situation for both sides. I'm dying to see the response of the Israeli government to this idea."
Senior members of the Palestinian Authority are very interested in the bridge, including outgoing prime minister Salam Fayyad, who has asked to meet with Mimram at the first opportunity. But Mimram, who is surprised by the general lack of willingness to advance the project, has decided to slow his efforts. He prefers to refrain from approaching decision makers on both sides, and hopes the project will continue on its own.
Ron Pundak, cochairman of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, seeks to put a damper on enthusiasm for the bridge. Like Isaac, he too opposes the idea of a tunnel "that reflects the ugly nature of the military and security conception" of the situation. But he believes Mimram's bridge, with all its functions, is likely to be impossible to build.
"The need for a land passage between Gaza and the West Bank is irrefutable and there can be no permanent agreement or peace without it," Pundak says. "It has to be a crossing with a designated goal that does not interfere with existing Israeli infrastructure, and takes Israel's master plan into consideration as well as environmental issues.
"I am excited by the interest in this issue but I'm not falling off my chair from Mimram's general concept," Pundak adds. "He looks at it as a symbol. We are not seeking symbols but rather practicality. We in the new Middle East have lived in an era of symbols for too long."