'The Duke of Nablus': The journey of one of the wealthiest Palestinians

Munib al-Masri, 82, is the wealthiest Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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December 10, 2016 05:28
Munib al-Masri

Al-Masri and his mansion in Nablus. (photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)

In the middle of the busy streets of Nablus, we hail a cab. “Where do you need to go?” asks the driver. “To Mr. Munib al-Masri’s home,” we reply. The driver pauses and then asks us to call Masri for directions and we comply.

“Hi, where is your home located?” the driver asks Masri.

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After listening to Masri’s directions, the driver says, “Oh, you mean the palace at the top of the hill?” Masri responds forcefully, “No, I mean the home at the top of the hill.”

“Oh yes, I know your palace,” the driver remarks. “I do not have a palace,” Masri repeats, “I have a home, Beit Falastin (the Home of Palestine).”

MUNIB AL-MASRI, 82, also known as “the Duke of Nablus,” is the wealthiest Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Masri has spent most of his career in the private sector, he has always played a prominent role in Palestinian politics and nation-building, serving as one of former PA president Yasser Arafat’s closest confidants and a consistent advocate in the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process.

Masri says that Beit Falastin, which is a replica of Andre Palladio’s Villa Capra “La Rotonda” in Vicenza, Italy, is dedicated to the Palestinian people and cause. Palestinian flags hang along the sides of his home and its four living rooms are named after modern and historic Palestinian cities – Jerusalem-Hebron, Jaffa-Haifa, Nablus-Gaza and Nazareth-Bethlehem.

Under the ornately decorated rotunda stands a statue of Hercules, which Masri likes to call “Mr. Palestine.” “He was powerful, modest and a fighter. He stood his ground and is made of stone, just like the Palestinian people,” says Masri.

We walk along a dirt path to the separate dining hall on the southern half of his property, adjacent to a large fountain and series of gardens. There, Masri, clad in blue jeans and a formal shirt, officially welcomes us.

“You should sit down and eat first. We can talk later,” he says, urging us to help ourselves to traditional Palestinian cuisine including majadra, maklouba and Arab salad.

Masri’s home is usually full of guests and today is no exception.

“I built this house for all Palestinians to enjoy. So I host them and outsiders whenever I can,” he says. Upon our arrival, he is simultaneously hosting the French consul-general, his family and many other guests. Masri makes his way around the dining hall, greeting guests, shaking hands and taking selfies.

Once his guests complete their meal, Masri says farewell and instructs us to meet him in his main house.

Just before we sit down in the Jerusalem-Hebron living room, he insists on showing us a mosaic of the monotheistic prophets. “There they are, all of them, the prophets that belong to Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” Masri says with a smile. “We all share the same ancestors.”

Al-Masri (left) as chairman of Palestine Development and Investment Company and Israel’s Yossi Vardi, chairman of International Technologies Ventures Inc. in 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)

Early life

Masri, born in 1934, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Nablus with two sisters and eight brothers. His mother largely bore the burden of raising him and his siblings because his father, who was a businessman and mukhtar (local leader), died when he was two years old.

His mother made education a priority for him and his siblings, ensuring that they all studied hard and completed their homework. However, Masri did not spend all of his time studying indoors and often daydreamed with his brother of undermining the British Mandate, then the ruling power between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

“I used to place rocks along the train tracks near Nablus to derail the trains,” Masri says. “I was not always successful, but I sometimes derailed trains.”

Derailing trains and other acts earned Masri and his brother the reputation of naughty children among the local British leaders, who frequently summoned their mother to tell her what they had done. The governor said there would be harsh consequences if they went on like this, but unwilling to comply, Masri and his brother continued.

He and his brother also played childhood games, imagining that their homeland would ultimately be liberated, according to Masri.

“During the war [World War II], my brothers and I used to pretend that we were defeating the British and American armies,” he says.

IN 1948, war broke out in the region and threw the 14-year-old Masri into a whirlwind. School was canceled and daily air raids forced the boy and his family members to seek refuge in a nearby cave.

“The Israeli pilots came by plane to bomb. There were one or two air strikes each day, usually around 6 a.m.,” Masri says. “I remember a specific incident in which I looked into the eyes of an Israeli pilot through my binoculars. I then knew that I wanted to be a pilot in the Palestinian air force, when the day comes,” he recalls.

While the war shook Masri to his core, he did not suffer from loss of property and land like many of the Palestinian refugees from villages who sought shelter in schools around the city. His family used its resources to relocate to Aley, Lebanon, to continue his and his siblings’ studies.

In Lebanon, Masri continued to develop his national Palestinian identity with the support of his Lebanese teachers, who he said expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause and empathy for the Palestinian people.

A year later, as schools reopened and refugees were resettled in camps, 15-year-old Masri returned to Nablus, now under Jordanian control, and completed his high-school education at an-Najah High School. Even though Nablus had not come under Israeli control, Masri still saw his life goal to liberate his homeland.

“We came back from Lebanon and I realized that all I wanted to do in my life is to liberate Palestine. I wanted to know how I can fight the Israelis and get our land back,” he recalls emphatically.

AFTER GRADUATING high school, he decided that he wanted to pursue higher education in the United States and sailed aboard a freighter from Beirut to New York. When he arrived at the port, with only $400 in hand, Masri scoured the streets for transportation to the University of Texas in Austin, where he hoped to study. He then flagged down a taxi.

“I got off the boat and asked a taxi driver to take me to Texas. He laughed and said that I have to take the bus,” Masri recalls. “He told me that he was Jewish and that scared me, but I soon realized that he was a very nice man and he brought me to the Greyhound station.”

After his arrival in Austin, he flew on a plane for the first time, an experience that frightened and convinced him to abandon his dream of becoming a pilot. Instead, he concluded that he would study geology, which was a door to the growing natural resources explorations in the Middle East.

During his studies in the mid-1950s, Masri became politically active and joined pro-Palestinian groups on campus, which often clashed with pro-Israel organizations.

“We did not have positive relations nor could we find a platform for constructive dialogue with the recently established Israeli state supporters. We felt like nobody was willing to talk about Palestine and the refugees,” he says.

He continued to stay involved in campus activism, but also remained focused on completing his degree. He finished his studies a year ahead of time, married Angela, and subsequently flew back to the region.

A view of the city of Nablus (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)


Beginning of his political and professional path

Back in the Middle East, Masri employed his geolocation knowledge and started mapping the West Bank and Jordan, looking for water and oil. In 1956, he established his own holding group, which specialized in a variety of trades, including exploring for natural resources.

He traveled throughout the Middle East for his work.

He first met with Fatah co-founder Yasser Arafat in 1963 during a business trip to Algeria. There, Masri and Arafat established a strong bond, which would last until Arafat’s death.

While Masri quickly established himself as a major businessman in the Middle East, shifting his focus to water exploration in Jordan, the Gulf States and other parts of the Middle East, he also grew closer to Arafat and stayed involved in politics. His first major role in government came in 1970 when King Hussein of Jordan appointed him minister of public works as part of an agreement with Arafat. The agreement followed the Black September events when the Hashemite family crushed an armed uprising of the PLO in Jordan, ultimately expelling it and its members to Lebanon.

AS A minister in the Jordanian government, Masri worked 17 hours a day, focusing on his governing responsibilities. Yet, he still made time to meet with Arafat and PLO chairman Ahmad Shukeiri to discuss ways to advance the Palestinian cause.

At that time, Masri wanted to develop a new strategy to bring international support to the Palestinian cause. He envisioned the establishment of a lobby in Washington akin to that of AIPAC, and was a founder of AMEPRI, a group of professors who would lobby for the Palestinians. However, differences between some of the scholars, including Edward Said and Hisham Sharabi, over how to advocate for the Palestinian cause, ultimately led to the group’s collapse, crumbling a few years after it was founded.

“I always wondered what made the Zionist movement so successful. I wanted to create something similar to AIPAC and bring balance to the discussion regarding Palestine in Washington, but disagreements among our scholars hindered the program.”

Peace process

The first intifada in December 1987 attracted international attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the future of the region. Although the Israeli government considered the PLO a terrorist organization at the time, senior officials in Israel started establishing connections with Palestinian leaders, seeking a way to lower the flames of the popular uprising.

When then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin wanted to reach out to the Palestinian leadership, he called Masri.

Rabin and Masri discussed a number of issues at length in addition to the possible meeting of Rabin and Arafat.

“I told him, even if you would bring the prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad we would not achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I said you have to work with Arafat because he is the only person who can achieve it,” Masri recalls telling Rabin. “Then Rabin told me that he wanted me to be the Palestinian president. I laughed and asked ‘who am I to do that? And who are you to decide?’ Years later, when we signed the Oslo Accords, he came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘Please don't tell me I told you so.’ We then laughed together.”

SOME GROUPS among Palestinians and Israelis perceive the Oslo Accords as controversial. While right-wing Israelis claim that “giving up territories” and providing weapons to the Palestinian Authority constitute fatal mistakes, some Palestinians say that the accords facilitated an Israeli ploy to expand settlements and “subcontract the occupation.” Nevertheless, Masri believes that the Oslo Accords and the peace process that followed it in the 1990s reflected a genuine effort to achieve peace.

“Arafat called Rabin ‘my brother Yitzhak.’ He really believed in him. I also truly believed that Rabin and the Israelis were honest about their desire for peace,” says Masri.

Yet, he believes that just when the peace process started to gain steam, it suffered a severe blow on the night of November 4, 1995. He recalls that night, saying “Arafat called me and asked ‘have you seen the news?’ When I realized Rabin was assassinated, I thought it was a disaster for us. I was very sad.”

According to Masri, the Israeli will to achieve peace ended after Rabin’s assassination.

“Rabin’s successors failed to complete his legacy. Shimon Peres had the chance to make peace, but he didn't,” says Masri. “Oslo was a good opportunity, but it never materialized and became ambiguous, especially after Netanyahu was elected.”

 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin meets with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in Casablanca on October 30, 1994 (photo credit: SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)

Wake-up call

After 20 years of negotiations, Masri remains both pessimistic and optimistic. He feels that there is no Israeli leader who is willing to make the necessary sacrifices for peace, but is still hopeful that a peace accord ending Israel’s military rule is possible.

“I call on the Israelis to wake up!” he says, now sitting upright in his seat. “They should consider themselves a part of the region.”

He thinks that a peace accord needs to allow for the emergence of two independent states, but also two states that are integrated into the greater Middle East. In his perspective, the Arab Peace Initiative has the best chance at accomplishing that goal.

“I believe that this initiative is a great opportunity. We recognized the State of Israel, there’s nothing more to be done on our side. You need to decide, will you take the API, or be an occupier?” says Masri.

In 2002, the Arab League, a pan-Arab body, endorsed the API, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, “a just and agreed upon resolution” to the refugee problem, and 57 Muslim-majority and Arab states’ recognition of Israel. The government initially did not respond to the API, but more recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the API contains “positive elements” and expressed his willingness to negotiate amendments to its language.

However, when addressing Israeli security concerns, Masri dismisses the notion that the establishment of a future Palestinian state would lead to a greater state of instability and violence.

“If Palestinians are given their state, they will live in harmony with Israel. The Palestinian state will have to behave like a state and will not be able to attack Israel. Khaled Mashaal [the chairman of the Hamas Politburo], said on May 4, 2014, that if Israel accepts the API, he will adopt the peace initiative.”

Masri also rejects the assertion that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner for peace. He believes Abbas, with whom he maintains ties and sometimes meets, can sign a peace deal with Israel.

“Abbas is carrying not a branch but an entire olive tree. The Israeli people need to decide, it is no longer upon us. Accept what Abbas is saying to you. We have given everything there is.”

Furthermore, Masri remarks that Israelis should stop portraying themselves to the world as victims.

“Israel is always afraid. We, the Palestinians, are the victims here; we are living in a jail. The occupation’s objective is to preserve the idea of the Jewish state. They say that Israel is here to save the West from the ‘Islamic sea.’ I think it’s nonsense,” he says. “All that is needed is that Israel stops the building in settlements and accepts the Arab initiative. Here it is, it is an excellent opportunity. All Arabs and Muslims would accept it.”

FOR NOW, without peace talks on the horizon, Masri believes in a non-violent struggle that would pressure Israel to make compromises for peace. In particular, he backs the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

“I support BDS,” he says. “I support civil disobedience, but when the occupation will end and we will get our freedom people from both nations could love and marry each other.

“We must change the reality. We can live here in harmony, I believe in that,” Masri concludes.


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