BOSTON Can academia step in to resolve a raging conflict in places where diplomacy lags?
That's just what a team of urban planners and sociologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has set out to discover, using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a laboratory for a unique experiment.
On Friday MIT, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced the winners of a global contest aimed at choosing the most innovative proposals for developing Jerusalem, a city at the heart of this Middle Eastern conflict.
They chose four teams of students and professors in architecture and international affairs from among some 1,100 entries to the contest dubbed "Just Jerusalem," set in motion last year.
The winning proposals include a plan to collect rainwater runoff as a potential solution to water shortages in the arid region, and ideas for creating a network of services for Palestinian areas isolated from much of the city by a barrier Israel has built in the last decade due to security concerns.
A third project envisages construction of a joint Israeli-Palestinian orphanage in Jerusalem, while a fourth calls for making the city a part of a Mediterranean belt that would include most key cities in Arab countries in the region.
The winners, men and women from the United States, Austria, Malaysia and the Palestinian territories, will spend three months this fall on a $50,000 fellowship at MIT trying to turn their ideas into a workable blueprint, said project director Diane Davis, an author and sociologist at MIT.
A nine-member jury that chose the winners included a former Israeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a Palestinian scholar.
Jerusalem, a city holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews, is a core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel claims the entire city as its indivisible capital, though this is not recognized internationally. Palestinians want part of the city as the capital of a state they have been promised under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
Israelis and Palestinians have, largely with European aid, launched several joint projects in recent years aimed at fostering greater grass-roots cooperation, though violence often gets in the way of applying some of their ideas.
Whether MIT could fare any better at resolving conflict through joint communal work remains to be seen.
Davis said the university's name might give it some impact, particularly if it focuses more on issues of urban development rather than the complex politics behind the border disputes and violence that fuel the conflict.
She said she thought academics could roll up their sleeves and play a greater role in trying to get both sides to discuss solutions to the daily issues of running a city whose future has proven a huge stumbling block in Western-backed efforts to win a peaceful solution.
Jerusalem, she told Reuters in an interview, "is kind of the Gordian knot around which Middle East peace revolves or gets entangled. We thought why not go straight to the heart of the matter. ... Let's think about the city and what would make peoples' lives better."
Davis said she hopes that if the experiment works, something similar might be tried in other cities in conflict.