One Man's Dream City Rises In The Occupied West Bank
Forbes Magazine - Monica Wang - A fine slab of carved stone stands out against the wild rocks and shrubs scattered about the mountainous Palestinian landscape. It is a sign that reads “Rawabi,” meaning hills in Arabic, and it points to a narrow path up the slope.
As the paved road winds toward the top, the rugged Samarian countryside soon gives way to an entirely different scene: row after row of stately apartment buildings rise up from the ground like monoliths. Many of them are still unfinished, with large red cranes towering over the blocks of stone and concrete. Halfway up the hill there is an open-air Roman amphitheater, flanked on both sides by green grass (a rarity in the West Bank, where water is a scarce resource). A beautiful mosque stands next to the city center, where numerous empty shops wait for merchants to move in. Everything, from the neatly organized rows of apartment buildings to the amphitheater and the mosque, is polished with the same shade of golden beige, giving the city a startlingly crisp uniformity.
This is Rawabi, the first modern Palestinian planned city. Located in the West Bank, it is about 5.6 miles north of Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority, and around 15.5 miles from Jerusalem. The largest Palestinian flag in existence flies on top of a flagpole outside Rawabi’s welcome center, where Palestinian-American businessman Bashar Masri likes to greet visitors to his city. From that vantage point at the height of his seemingly absurd but concrete dream, Masri can easily survey the surrounding hills and mountains and the Israeli settlement Ateret on a nearby hilltop.
“Rawabi for us is not about money-making,” Masri told me during an interview. “It’s about nation-building. Because if we don’t build in our country, who will?”
Masri firmly believes that a Palestinian state is in the making, and he thinks the Rawabi project is contributing to that effort by generating employment opportunities and offering Palestinians a lifestyle that is comparable to what they would find in Israel.
“There are a lot of benefits to Rawabi — it offers higher standards of living, it moves nationalism in a positive way, and it gives people the ability to do for themselves,” Masri explained. “We need to showcase to the whole world that we are about construction. We are not the stereotyped destruction. We are construction. We are builders. We deserve a state.”
Masri said he had long searched for a large patriotic project and finally found the inspiration when he entered the real estate business in 2004. In December 2007, he announced his plan to build Rawabi, the development of which is jointly funded by his company Massar International and the investment branch of the Qatari government. Excavation began in 2010, and construction soon followed in 2012. Asked about how much longer it will take to complete the project, Masri gave a rough estimate of another six to eight years.
This means that we will be well into the 2020s when Rawabi becomes a full-fledged, operating city. But consider its physical location in the West Bank, a landlocked strip of occupied territories flanked by Israel on the west side and Jordan on the east. In fact, Rawabi is often cited as a case study at the Harvard Business School, where Masri has discussed the details and challenges of constructing a city in the middle of occupation. From a strictly business point of view, Masri said Rawabi does not make sense. It is a profitless project that has gone way above his head, and his company is assuming enormous risks by undertaking the development.
“We would be lucky if we could limit our losses to $100 million by the end of the project,” Masri said, adding that the Israeli occupation has severely hampered Rawabi’s construction and chance of profitability. So far, everything in Rawabi from the water pipeline to the international school (which will be operational this September) is a private enterprise.
Masri is funding the now $1 billion plus project with his own fortune as well as with the support of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Qatari government. Together, Masri and the Qataris are developing around one-third of the 1,600 acres that Rawabi spans, leaving the rest to future developers.
The project has taken more money out of his pockets and more time out of his schedule than Masri had planned, but he remains undeterred. Even though Massar International is a private company and Masri would love to make money as a businessman, he emphasized that Rawabi’s purpose is to help build the nation of Palestine. The city is about defying the occupation and establishing a firm Palestinian presence in the West Bank. Besides, Masri said, he has 30 other businesses that are making him good money.
“Rawabi is a fact on the ground. In politics, you have to put facts on the ground. Our people have not been doing that, but the Israelis have,” he said, referring to the occupation and Israeli settlements like Ateret. “Rawabi is the first attempt by Palestinians to put a fact on the ground. The world is very sympathetic to the Palestinian people as victims, but not as peace-builders. We want them to see us as peace-builders.”
There is only one problem — the city feels depressingly empty, with only 300 families residing in the state-of-the-art apartments. Many have described Rawabi as a ghost town, and the viability of its future is still very much up in the air.
Masri conceded that sales are healthy but not as dramatic as he had anticipated. This is partly due to uncertainty surrounding the political situation and partly because of delays in construction. The city also faced a serious water crisis from 2014 to 2015 when it sought but did not receive permission to build a water pipeline. Many apartment buyers canceled their orders when they learned that Rawabi did not have water. But since the problem was solved in mid-2015, Masri has been able to sell 850 residential units, of which 640 are now ready for delivery. He is optimistic and expects that after the holy month of Ramadan, a minimum of 500 families will settle down. By the end of next year, he is hopeful that the city will have 1,500 families.
During the main phase of construction, Masri and the Qataris plan to build 6,000 units. His goal — a relatively conservative one, Masri said — is to have 8,000 homes at the project’s completion.
Currently, Rawabi employs around 6,000 construction workers. Masri said the project usually generates 8,000 to 10,000 construction jobs every year, but to make Rawabi a truly vibrant city, there needs to be jobs beyond construction. Rawabi’s motto is “Live, Work, Grow,” and Masri’s company is looking to build the appropriate infrastructure for a variety of careers, especially ones that are relatively immune to the occupation. Masri said he has considered light manufacturing, assembly, and simple shops like welding and carpentry. But the main focus is the construction of a IT hub that will attract what he calls the Palestinian “yuppies,” since such a center that combines job opportunities in tech and the corresponding lifestyle does not currently exist in Palestine.
Mohammad Nazzal, a project manager at the IT company ASAL Technologies who moved to Rawabi around six months ago, said he chose the city because it is building the first information and communications technology hub in Palestine.
“I couldn’t find a better place to live than in Rawabi,” said Nazzal, who had previously worked as an engineer for Microsoft in the United States. His company (currently located in Ramallah) is considering moving to Rawabi as well.
Nazzal told me that his neighbors include bankers, accountants, and government employees as well as teachers, taxi drivers, and farmers.
“A city should have a wide range of people, from recent graduates who just landed on jobs to people who are about to retire,” Masri said. “Our main target is the younger generation — people who have been out of college and working for three to ten years, who have saved up a small down payment, and who can afford to take out a mortgage.”
At the same time, Masri made it clear that Rawabi is not meant for Palestinians without jobs or income. He anticipates that the population will primarily consist of the middle and upper-middle classes. “Hopefully down the road, Rawabians will become rich and will continue to live in Rawabi,” he said.
A three-bedroom apartment in Rawabi costs approximately $100,000, which is around 25% less than the equivalent in Ramallah. But that price is still beyond the reach of many ordinary Palestinians, who often complain about a lack of affordable housing in the occupied territories.
In fact, some of Rawabi’s strongest critics come from the local population. Palestinians have accused Masri of profiteering in the midst of the occupation and have found his promises too good to be true. For those living through the everyday realities of checkpoints, Israeli military presence in the West Bank, and violence in the region, Rawabi sounds like far-away dream that is as inaccessible as it is absurd.
Masri admitted to the disapproval that his fellow Palestinians have voiced. “At the initial stage [of the project] there was disbelief, and many called me a dreamer, a capitalist who wanted to raise land prices — you name it,” he said. “But when the project started getting a lot of coverage and they saw things happening on the ground, there was a lot of support.”
Still, the criticism has never subsided. The Palestinian Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement against Israel has publicly denounced Rawabi as a project of normalization with Israel and against the Palestinian struggle for rights and recognition. Supporters of BDS do not see Rawabi as a display of defiance but as an act of submission to the occupiers.
Palestinian Liberation Organization senior official Wasel Abu Yousef is among the movement’s sympathizers. “All Palestinian factions and nongovernmental institutions, as well as all the Palestinian people, have made a decision to boycott the occupation forces, which is something that should apply to everyone, including Rawabi, as there has been talk that Israeli companies contributed to its construction,” he told the news site Al-Monitor in 2014.
The BDS National Committee also put out a statement in 2012 demanding that Masri and his businesses, especially Rawabi, end “all normalization activities with Israel and its complicit institutions, beyond the bare necessity that all Palestinian businesses in the occupied territory must reckon with.”
“There is no way to build a project like this without dealing with them,” Masri countered. “Every Palestinian has to deal with the occupier. Our lives are going to go on despite the occupation, and [Rawabi] is defying the occupation.”
Rawabi uses products from 500 companies, including Israeli ones. But Masri said he has taken a strong stance against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which he called “the biggest obstacles to peace.” He said he is proud that all of his company’s contracts include a clause that prohibits business partners from supplying Rawabi with products and services that originated from Israeli settlements.
But Masri continues to face a dilemma: he cannot build a city without working with the Israelis, and he also cannot silence the voices of Palestinians who blame him for collaborating with the occupiers. Both sides have created numerous challenges for the project, which hangs by a thread that is stretched tight by the Israeli occupation on one end and internal Palestinian struggles on the other.
In 2014, when Masri was ready to deliver new apartments, incoming Rawabians discovered that there was no water in the city. Rawabi’s construction relied on a well that could not supply enough water for the residents. Masri panicked — he had spent the last two years seeking approval of a water pipeline from the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, but nothing had come through.
A product of the Oslo Accords, the JWC is responsible for supplying water to the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority has some power to allocate water within the region, but it is ultimately up to the Israelis to decide how much water the occupied territories receive. Every water project in the West Bank must be approved by the JWC, but the committee has not met in years. The Palestinian Authority boycotts meetings in protest against Israeli settlements, most of which also receive their water supply from Israel. So without the JWC’s approval and the Israeli government’s consent, Rawabi could not build a pipeline.
The lack of water almost killed the project. Construction had to be delayed, 450 apartment purchase contracts were cancelled by the end of 2014, and the situation sucked away all profits from Masri’s business.
According to Masri, water should not have been a problem. He believes that the delay was intentional and an Israeli punishment for the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation in 2014.
“We had nothing to do with it, but this was the punishment,” he said. “As we were about to deliver the apartments, we were faced with this [water] problem. It delayed the moving of people for almost two years. It was a delay of about $100 million for us. It meant the stopping of construction and it also killed the euphoria of the project. A lot of people canceled.”
Fortunately, Rawabi had international supporters who were willing to speak on its behalf, including American president Barack Obama and former British prime minister and Middle East envoy Tony Blair.
“It’s going to be a lot tougher for us to bring in investment from people outside of Palestine if one of the leading Palestinian businessmen can’t get his project to go ahead inside what would undoubtedly be a Palestinian state,” Blair told BBC News in 2015, explaining his support for the project and his call for Israel to give Rawabi the water it desperately needed.
Water finally flowed into Rawabi in mid-2015, after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively bypassed the JWC and promised in February that Israel’s Water Authority would bring Rawabi into its system as a gesture to his international friends. Rawabi has since been allocated 300 cubic meters of water a day, which is enough to solve the acute water crisis but still not satisfactory. Masri said the city is currently lobbying for a larger water quota.
The crisis over water may be alleviated, but other obstacles caused by the occupation continue to confront Rawabi. The city lies in the Palestinian Authority-controlled Area A, but to reach Rawabi, people and resources must pass through regions of the West Bank under Israeli jurisdiction. This is why Masri needed Israeli approval to build a water pipeline. Even the narrow access road to Rawabi was built with Israel’s permission, and Masri has been fighting to widen it in order to provide better access to the city.
Both Nazzal and Flora Barghouti-Taher, a pediatrician who moved to Rawabi two weeks ago with her husband and three young children, spoke about the frustrations of passing through Israeli checkpoints on their way to and from the city.
“I wake up every morning and think what a nightmare it would be if the checkpoints are closed,” Barghouti-Taher said. “There’s no way I can go to work [in Ramallah], do my daily shopping, visit my [extended] family, and send my kids to school.”
She is fearful because of how unpredictable the situation can be. The Israelis can open and close the checkpoints whenever they want, Barghouti-Taher told me. Her family took a risk by moving to Rawabi, and the doctor said she can only hope that the checkpoints will stay open.
Similarly, Nazzal feels indignant about the way he has been treated by Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints. He is an American citizen but carries a Palestinian ID, so he is required to pass through the checkpoints like other Palestinians.
“Last time the soldiers surrounded my car and forced me to step down. It was a very humiliating search,” he said. “Every time I have to go to work [in Ramallah], I have to go through a checkpoint and have a gun pointed at my face. For what? For being Palestinian?”
So before Rawabi finishes building its IT hub and attracts tech companies and other jobs to the city, its residents must struggle to leave for work every morning and pass through checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers. It is not surprising that accessibility can be a big deterrent to buying property in the city.
The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, pledged to support the project and provide funds (estimated at around $150 million) for Rawabi’s public infrastructure when it signed a private-public partnership agreement with Masri’s company in 2008. But it has offered close to nothing since then. The water pipeline was connected without the help of the Palestinian government, the school that will open in September is a private one, and the city lacks a proper police force. The Palestinian Authority’s financial promise also fell through, and no wonder — foreign donations (which make up close to 40% of the Palestinian budget) have declined in recent years while local Palestinians have increasingly come to see their leaders as weak and corrupt.
“We believe the Palestinian Authority should have seen the project as a top priority and should have supported it...by building a school, by building a road, building a clinic, building the sewage treatment, building a water tank,” Masri told The Jerusalem Post in January. “Unfortunately, their contribution so far has been zero when it comes to funding.” This is still true as of July.
And yet without the support of his own government and facing challenges from Israeli occupiers and local Palestinians alike, Masri continues to carry his dream forward.
Peace has to be made between leaders, he said, but a stronger economy and higher standards of living in the West Bank can contribute to the peace process. “Rawabi will not bring peace,” Masri explained. “But it will enhance the chances of a peace agreement.”
Barghouti-Taher agrees. She sees the city as a model system that the Palestinian state can emulate. Blaming the occupation is useless, she said. Palestinians themselves must learn to build an organized system and ultimately a Palestinian state.
So despite its vocal critics, the uncertainty of its future, and the many obstacles ahead, Rawabi has at least one group of loyal supporters: people who have moved there because they believe in the purpose of the place.
“I’m impressed by Bashar’s patience with standing up against all this negativity from different people. He faces issues and difficulties from both the Palestinians and the Israelis. These are big challenges for him,” Nazzal said. “For me and for us residents, we all stand by him. We want to stand by him to complete this project.”
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