Planned Palestinian City in West Bank Faces Hurdles
NPR - Eric Westervelt - Backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from the government of Qatar, a Palestinian developer is moving aggressively to build the first new Palestinian city in the West Bank in a generation. But the state-of-the-art planned city faces big hurdles, including Israeli military objections and critics who say the West Bank is not ready for such projects.
ROBERT SMITH, host:
And I'm Robert Smith. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Pakistan. He'll talk to us in a few minutes from a site of a mega-housing project along the shore of the Arabian Sea.
But first we take a look at one man's dream of urban development. A Palestinian wants to build a whole new town in the West Bank. But the state-of-the-art utopia is facing real world problems, like objections from the Israeli military. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
Mr. BASHAR AL-MASIRI(ph) (Developer): And most of the town will have this beautiful scenery.
WESTERVELT: There's only an hour of sunlight left for Palestinian developer Bashar al-Masiri to show off his majestic hillside valley where he hopes to build the town of Rawabi, or the hills, in Arabic. What he calls a Palestinian first for the West Bank.
Mr. AL-MASIRI: This is the first new town since probably the Romans. This is the first planned community that I can think of in hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
WESTERVELT: Masiri, a 47-year-old Ramallah businessman sticks close to his two guests from Qatar as the three men traipse around the scrub brush nine miles north of Ramallah. After all, the executives from the gas-rich emirate, nattily dressed in Italian suits and dark sunglasses, are investing more than $230 million in the new city - a sprawling complex, that when complete, will be home to some 40,000 Palestinians as well as new shops, restaurants and office buildings.
Mr. AL-MASIRI: This is a new phenomenon for Palestine. It's not a new phenomenon for the world or even the region, but for Palestine definitely it's a new phenomenon.
WESTERVELT: Masiri doesn't sugarcoat his pitch. His guests, he says, know full well the hurdles they face in building a new town in a territory under Israeli military occupation.
Mr. AL-MASIRI: Is it risky? It's a hell of a risky project. But it's worthwhile and it's our duty to - as Palestinians - to try to bring our economy up from the disaster it's in.
WESTERVELT: That disaster includes the per capita gross domestic product in the Palestinian territories that's declined 40 percent since 2000, the start of the second Palestinian uprising. The World Bank predicts flat growth in the West Bank, into next year, citing on-the-ground impediments to commerce, including the more than 600 Israeli military checkpoints, road blocks and other barriers to movement in the territory.
Mr. AL-MASIRI: We worry about the checkpoints, but the checkpoints are also in Ramallah and in Nablus. Life does not stop at the end of the day. We have to try to make our life better, even under the difficult conditions of the occupation. We cannot give in to the occupation.
WESTERVELT: But Masiri has yet to get final approval from Israel to build a much-needed road so Palestinians can reach the new town directly from the nearby town of Birzai(ph). The Israeli army sees the road as a security risk. This proposed access road would cut through what's known as Area C, the 60 percent of West Bank land directly controlled by Israel under terms of the 15-year-old Oslo Accord.
Mr. AL-MASIRI: I hope they will deliver, and if they don't, it will delay the project; it will hurt the project.
WESTERVELT: The Qatari real estate company backing Rawabi has invested some $50 billion in more than 90 projects from China to Cuba. So, for Qatar, a $200 million gamble in the West Bank is relatively small potatoes. But it's big for the West Bank where housing shortage has driven up prices. The new town aims to lure middle income Palestinians.
New apartments in Rawabi will sell for between $40,000 and 80,000. Tony Blair, the envoy for the quartet of Mideast peacemakers, met recently with the investors and pledged to direct international donors to the project, calling it a model. So, is Rawabi really a viable investment for Qatar or mere political symbolism?
Ghanim Bin Saad al Saad is the CEO of Qatari Diar, the real estate investment arm of the emirate.
Mr. BIN SAAD AL-SAAD (CEO, Qatari Diar): We support our brothers in Palestine. We start now in housing but we continue in health care, education, many projects in the future.
WESTERVELT: So, is it more symbolic than an actual investment per se?
Mr. AL-SAAD: Absolute, yes.
Mr. AL-SAAD: Yes.
Mr. MUSTAFA BARGHUTHI (Independent Member, Palestinian Parliament): There cannot be real economic development unless the political restrictions and military restrictions by the Israeli army is removed.
WESTERVELT: Mustafa Barghuthi, independent member of the Palestinian parliament, says he welcomes West Bank investments, but he says projects like Rawabi could end up only reinforcing Israeli military restrictions on real economic growth in the territory.
Mr. BARGHUTHI: This is an area that has been occupied by Israel since 41 years. With so many restrictions on movement, the whole system has been destroyed. And this abnormal situation will be further (unintelligible) if some little growth happens in one little area but the rest of the country does not benefit from it.
WESTERVELT: The Palestinian developers, with backing from Qatar, hope to break ground on the Rawabi project in September, with or without Israeli permission for that key access road. As the Palestinian CEO Bashar al-Masiri put it, I'm not building this city for peace time, I'm building this for today, even with the obstacles of today.
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