A new Palestinian city struggles to come into its own
The Times of Israel - AVI ISSACHAROFF - Rawabi's planner battles Israeli authorities for a proper access road and water, but he fears he may not be able to keep his promises to buyers
Work on the first planned Palestinian city is now well underway: Rawabi was discussed extensively for years, but this time it’s for real. During the first quarter of 2014, 650 apartments in the city’s first neighborhoods are slated to be populated. All of the apartments that have been put on the market so far have been sold and the buildings stand ready.
A tour of the city located “10 minutes from Ramallah” reveals a town that any family, Palestinian or Israeli, would find attractive. The construction standards are high, the city is well-designed, and the plans for its development are ambitious on any scale. Apartments ranging from 80 to 200 square meters in size are going for $65,000-$180,000. With the view that the city offers and such attractive prices, it’s not surprising that the apartments are in such high demand.
This project was the initiative of the Bayti Real Estate Investment Company owned by Palestinian-American multimillionaire and renowned businessman Bashar al-Masri. The project targets small families with up to three children belonging to the middle-class or higher with an average monthly income of $2,000, but the entrepreneurs were surprised to discover that nearly 13% of the buyers are single. The vast majority (80 percent) of single buyers are women, meaning that approximately 9% of the first apartments in the city are owned by educated, single, Palestinian women. They hail from cities in the West Bank, from east Jerusalem and from Arab cities in Israel.
Rawabi is one of the only cities in the world that had a mayor (appointed by the Palestinian Authority) before it had a single resident. Bayti’s agreement with the PA was that mayoral elections would be held once 500 families move in. In any event, the municipality building is under vigorous construction, as is the large shopping center, which bears a close resemblance to Jerusalem’s Mamilla pedestrian mall. Besides the cafes and restaurants that will open here, the mall will also feature franchises of large commercial chain stores such as H&M, Mango and possibly even Victoria’s Secret. It will also offer gyms, swimming pools, an amphitheater for live performances and a soccer field. And as can be expected of a city with a cosmopolitan flavor, the cornerstone of the city’s first church has been laid near the mosque that is currently under construction.
Al-Masri, who looks like he’s just stepped out of a fashion magazine, explains that the city’s target population is young, college-educated families. “We assess the potential target population in the West Bank at approximately 30,000 families and we’re planning to build 6,000 apartments,” he says. All told, some 25,000 people are expected to live in Rawabi.
At the foot of the mountain, roads are being paved for a new industrial zone to be built in Area B, under Israeli security control. This project is headed up by Ghadi Khoury, who holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University and lives in Tel Aviv. It goes without saying that she looks like she’s stepped out of the same fashion magazine as her boss.
However, this unique project has encountered more than a few obstacles placed by Israel. The city is being built inside Area A, but the access road to Rawabi passes through Area C. Israeli authorities have so far authorized a road that is no more than six meters wide, meaning the main access road to the city will be barely wide enough for two cars traveling in opposite directions.
Why does Israel refuse to allow the road to such a promising project to be expanded? The army’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories unit says that “the subject of expanding the access road to Rawabi is a known problem and is currently under consideration. In order to further this issue, al-Masri must purchase the privately owned plots of land alongside the road or receive the landowners’ permission.”
According to al-Masri, the issue has already been taken care of. “There is a different problem and I’m not quite sure what it is,” he says. “A senior Israeli official recently said, ‘What do you want from us, Bashar? Ae’re working on resolving the road issue.’ I said to him, ‘You’ve been saying the same thing for five years and nothing has been resolved.’ I have to request approval for the road every single year, instead of just receiving permission to expand it. Seventy-five percent of the people who purchased apartments in Rawabi have expressed their genuine concern about the access road and refuse to pay the full cost of their apartment until the problem is resolved.”
But the access road is a minor issue compared to a much more pressing one. Although the new city is scheduled to be inhabited in just a few months, it is not connected to a water supply – neither from the PA nor from Israel. Al-Masri’s temporary solution is to situate giant water tanks in the city, though the real question is why the city can’t be connected to the water lines that Israel uses to supply water to other cities in the West Bank.
The answer to this question is, of course, political. According to COGAT, “It is the PA’s exclusive responsibility to divert water and determine quotas and amounts (according to the interim agreement, of course). Israel has recently increased the amount of water that it delivers to the PA, particularly to the Ramallah area, but the decision to channel water to Rawabi is for the PA to make. Nevertheless, we are considering alternative ways of allocating water to Rawabi, as it is expected to be inhabited very soon”.
Al-Masri, however, rejects Israel’s claims, saying that “they are mistaken both in theory and in practice. According the Oslo Accords, Israel controls the water supply to the West Bank. Rawabi may be in Area A, but a water pipe from Ramallah would have to run through Area C, thus requiring Israeli approval. Israel has not said that it will not approve the water line — on the contrary — but the first residents are soon scheduled to move in and nothing has happened. We have already considered the option of connecting the city to a pipe near the city, which will require the PA to pay Israel for the water, but so far we have not received permission to connect Rawabi to that pipe. If we are unable to connect the city to a water supply within the next 45 days, we will have to postpone the first stage of inhabiting the city. I refuse to mislead people and move them into a city without water.”
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