From the time he was arrested by the IDF as a high-school senior and missed his required
exam for graduation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gotten in the way of
businessman Bashar al-Masri’s dreams and ambitions.
On the diplomatic
level, the Palestinian Authority has won an important victory in its quest for
unilateral statehood. On Monday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to accept Palestine as its 195th member –
the first time a UN body has accepted Palestine as a state.
But for the
50-year-old Ramallah resident, who has spent his life dedicated to Palestinian
statehood by seeking to change facts on the ground, the step forward has done
little to gain him what he needs – road access to the West Bank Samaria hilltop
where he is building the first modern planned Palestinian city,
Anyone standing at the 630-hectare site could almost believe they
were already in a Palestinian state. Green, black, white and red flags flutter
from poles and construction equipment.
At a visitor center on the
hilltop, one can see a scale model of the new city, which will have 6,000 new
apartments and be home to 40,000 people. Buyers who trek to the site can flip
through an iPad display to find apartments based on size, location and price.
They can also view the apartments’ interior design.
The city will
initially have two mosques, a church, a city center, schools and a cultural
center, as well as parks and a sewage treatment plant.
It is designed for
the young, modern, middle-class family, with apartments priced deliberately
lower than those in neighboring Palestinian cities.
The new town is
located in Area A and B of the West Bank, which is under the PA’s control.
According to regulations, only those with Palestinian identification numbers or
special permission can purchase property in PA territory, including
A number of buildings are already under construction, and there
is a list of buyers.
But Masri, who initiated the project in 2007, says
he does not plan to sell anything until the access issue is resolved.
problem, he explains, is that most of the land around Rawabi is Area C, which is
under Israeli military control.
In the most immediate future, he says, he
needs permission from the Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria to pave a
dirt road located in Area C so trucks can bring construction material to the
According to Masri, Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised him a
permit to fix the road during former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s term, but
since then, it has been bogged down by paperwork.
By using stones from
the Rawabi hilltop and shaping them into building material and tiles in two
factories he built on the site, he has severely cut down on the need for trucks.
He has even built a cement factory on the hilltop. But he can’t get around the
need for sand, which can’t be trucked in the necessary quantities without the
He estimates that the project is behind by a year as a
result of the delay in acquiring a paving permit.
Separately, for Rawabi
to be operational, he needs Israel to approve moving an 11-hectare section of
Area C into Area A, so he can build an access road to the city for its
Initially, it was his understanding that Israel would
approve that request. But he now understands from the PA that it has linked
permission to change the zoning for the access road, to the resumption of peace
negotiations with the Palestinians, which have been frozen for 13 months and
seem unlikely to resume in the near future.
Israel this week has taken a
number of retaliatory measures against the PA for seeking unilateral statehood
at the UN instead of pursuing a negotiated settlement.
Israel and the Palestinians are particularly tense, and while on one hand, Masri
celebrates UNESCO’s decision, on the other hand, approvals needed for his
project seem further off than ever.
“It’s important to know that the
world is gradually and surely recognizing a Palestinian state,” he says. “It’s a
great step in the right direction.”
However, he rejects the imposed
connection between approval for the access road and the stalled peace talks,
declaring, “I cannot imagine that getting a license should be linked to
political issues that are unrelated.”
Yet this latest problem comes as no
surprise, because his life has been overshadowed by Israel’s military presence
in the West Bank. The son of a Nablus-born, American-trained doctor, Masri jokes
that he was “made in the USA,” because he was conceived there before his family
returned to Palestine in 1961.
The tall, gray-suited businessman, who
spoke with The Jerusalem Post this week in an upscale Ramallah coffee shop,
looks like he could belong in any Western country.
His decision to devote
his life to the pursuit of Palestinian statehood – albeit from the private
sector – was set in motion partially, he says, by a chance decision he made at
On his way from school to his father’s office in downtown Nablus,
where they lived, he stopped to participate in a demonstration against
As he walked away, an army jeep arrested him.
myself at the wrong place at the wrong time, like most Palestinian kids. What is
the wrong place and the wrong time? It is being under occupation,” he says. He
was released after two days, but from then on, he says, the IDF routinely picked
him up and temporarily jailed him for no reason he could discern.
last time, in January 1978, he was jailed for 45 days.
“It was cold as
heck,” he recalls.
“That was a tough one – they accused me of all kinds
of things, stupid things.” None of them were true, he claims.
when I knew that there is no justice in this,” he says, adding that such
injustice could not be sustained, and it became clear to him that one day it
would give way to a Palestinian state.
He decided to do his part to make
Upon his release, he left for Cairo to finish high school,
because he had missed a critical exam while in jail that he could not make
Like his father, he then headed to the US for college, earning a
degree in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech.
After he graduated in
1983, he went to London for management training and on to Saudi Arabia for work.
He then moved to Washington, where he worked until 1994 at a management
consulting and lobbying firm.
He became a US citizen in 1986, and very
“Americanized” – but he never lost his conviction that he would return to the
When he and his American-born fiancé spoke of
marriage 1989, he told her that his one request was to move back there one
She responded, “‘Sure, baby, sure.’ I said, ‘No, really.’” She
accepted it because she didn’t believe it would happen, he says.
first intifada broke out in the mid-1980s, he was involved from abroad and had
contacts with both the local intifada’s leadership and that of the PLO in
Tunisia – but only in regard to non-violent activity, he stresses.
have a very just cause, and there is no reason to spoil it with graphic and
dramatic things,” he says.
He jokes that he was the “doorman” for a few
important moments that led up to Oslo, recounting that when a Palestinian team
first came to Washington in the early 1990s, they met in his office.
of the negotiators were his friends, he says, and it was natural that in
traveling and staying in Washington they would seek his help.
He also had
the “privilege” of coordinating with the State Department regarding the protocol
of Yasser Arafat’s historic 1993 trip to sign the Oslo Accords. When he landed
at Andrews Air Force Base, Masri and a State Department representative went up
to greet the PLO leader.
It was amazing, he says, that after so many
years in which Palestinians were linked to terrorism, here was a Palestinian
leader landing in Washington to meet the president. “Before then, it was in my
heart that there would be a Palestinian state; in my mind, there was a debate
whether it would happen in my lifetime.”
Hopeful that change had finally
arrived for the Palestinians, he returned in 1995 with his family and started a
holding company, Massar International. He remains its CEO.
Massar, he began, on a private level, to lay the business and financial
infrastructure that a state would need.
The name of the company means
path, he explains. It reflects his mission to use his entrepreneurial skills to
link the Palestinian private business world with the global market.
state, he asserts, has to have a business sector that operates in the global
market, and he saw how he could shepherd that process with his Palestinian
background and his American experience. He also agreed to organize the business
end of a new Palestinian newspaper, Al-Ayyam.
International, he created subsidiary projects dealing with stock brokerage, the
Internet, advertising, and an agriculture export company.
He also helped
broker a deal with the PA and Tyrolean Airways to create a national Palestinian
airline, but it never got off the ground because of the outbreak of the second
During those first years after he returned, the future seemed
bright, he recalls. In 1999 and 2000, Israelis roamed freely around
There was even an Israeli who worked in his office three days a
“We were booming. We were doing very well until September of 2000,
and then we hit a stone wall,” he says. “We never saw the intifada
Initially, for the first six-months, we were in denial,” unable
to accept that everything had fallen apart.
There were a number of things
that made it seem as if the peace process would still move forward. There was
the Clinton initiative in November, the December meeting in Taba, and Arafat’s
White House meeting in January 2001. After former prime minister Ariel Sharon
took office, his son Omri met secretly with Arafat at Masri’s
Instead, however, the situation deteriorated, and his businesses
suffered huge losses.
The Palestinians, argues Masri, should have
accepted the 2000 Clinton initiative, because that would have stopped all
“The second intifada was a mistake,” he declares.
business initiatives failing, he turned his attention away from Palestine and
expanded regionally, into Jordan, Egypt, Dubai, Morocco and Libya. They have
closed their projects in Dubai and Libya, but are still active in the other
The situation improved in 2004 after Arafat passed away and PA
President Mahmoud Abbas took over.
“The whole world was against Arafat,
and he was doomed,” Masri says.
He was replaced by a new PA government
run by Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, which denounced violence in favor
It also focused on internal security.
picked up almost immediately, and though it dipped a bit during the Hamas-Fatah
split in 2007, it rose again shortly afterward. He notes that 2009 and 2010 were
particularly good years.
“I could see that our leadership was working to
build a state,” he says, and to assist those efforts, he launched the Rawabi
The construction is almost as important as the city itself
because of the 1,000 jobs it provides. The billion- dollar project is the
largest in Palestinian history, he says.
Though he admits that with that
kind of money at stake, it would have made sense for him to look elsewhere –
“This is not the safest place in the world, politically speaking, to do
business,” he says; in fact, “it is one of the highest-risk places” – he
believes that “it is part of our duty as Palestinians to use our resources,
talents, expertise and know-how to serve our nation.”
The father of two
girls – Tamara, 19, and Dina, 17 – Masri says that in spite of his success in
the Palestinian business world, he is not optimistic about the
“Things do not look good. If I am counting on politics and the
approval of a Palestinian state, then I should stop the construction of Rawabi
and I should dismantle it,” he declares. Still, “I am a strong believer that you
must continue to advance things, despite the occupation.”
Nor does he
plan to give up.
“Year and after year, we are advancing to the point
where a state is ready,” he says.