Palestinians pursue their own suburban dreams
The Age - Jason Koutsoukis - BASHAR Masri is a man with a vision. Standing on a windy hilltop about 10 kilometres north of Ramallah, Masri points to where the main street will run in the future city of Rawabi. ''This will be the first time in the history of the Palestinian people that we have planned a city of our own,'' he says.
When completed, Rawabi - which means ''hills'' in Arabic - will provide a style of middle-class housing that has been previously unavailable to Palestinians.
Far from the mayhem of other Palestinian cities such as Ramallah and Hebron, or East Jerusalem, life in Rawabi promises the kind of urban serenity one might expect to find in the Yarra Valley. Modest-sized apartment blocks and townhouses spaced between manicured lawns and tree-lined walkways make for a thoroughly modern style of Palestinian living
All that now stand between Masri and his vision are three obstacles.
''When we first proposed this project, people said you will never get it done. So we sat around and made up a list of all the obstacles, and that came to more than 100,'' says Masri. ''But we have now worked through most of those.''
The main challenges remaining are to convince Israel, which formally occupies the West Bank, to approve the construction of a road into Rawabi that will be administered by the Palestinian Authority. ''If it is an Israeli-administered road, then that means they can put a checkpoint on the road at any time and that would kill the project.''
Israel also needs to agree to supply water to the new city. The other major hurdle is persuading the Palestinian Authority to invest in the necessary infrastructure to support a community. ''Things like schools and other public buildings, that if they are not there it becomes very difficult to persuade people to move here.''
So far the signs are good. Rawabi has been endorsed enthusiastically by the Israeli Government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to power earlier this year preaching a message of improving the economic lives of Palestinians.
The project has also received strong backing from the Palestinian Authority in terms of clearing regulatory hurdles, although Masri remains frustrated at the lack of support from donor countries around the world, who provide aid funding to the Palestinian Authority.
A chemical engineer by training, Masri, 48, the majority shareholder in the Massar group of companies, began seriously exploring the idea for Rawabi in 2007.
His biggest challenge early on was buying the land for the project, which over hundreds of years had been fragmented between hundreds of owners spanning Ottoman and Jordanian rule. ''Tracking down these owners showed the whole Palestinian experience,'' he says. ''We found Palestinians spread all over the world, each of whom had ownership of some small parcel of land in the area.''
Now that he has bought the land, he has a clear vision of what the project will - and will not - look like. ''When we conducted market research to find out what people wanted, 94 per cent agreed that any new city must not look like a Jewish settlement,'' says Masri. That meant no red roofs, and buildings of a different size and shape. ''The one thing that characterises the settlements is that they are rows and rows of ordered houses, so we've tried to make the plans for Rawabi as different as possible.''
With nearly 100 employees working full-time on the project, including the planning and design of the city itself, infrastructure and legal and regulatory issues, Masri says he is ready to start construction as soon as the last three obstacles can be cleared.
The first stage of the project will include housing for about 5000 people, with plans to expand the population to up to 40,000. With average-sized apartments of 140 square metres expected to sell for between $85,000 and $90,000, Masri says thousands of potential home buyers have already expressed keen interest.
''Life is changing for the next generation of Palestinians. Our biggest challenge remains making peace with the Israelis. And when we do that our enemy will become our best friend.''
''Many of Israel's biggest businessmen know the potential of the Palestinian workforce. We can be the gateway to the rest of Arab world.''
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