West Bank: Build it and they will come

Palestinian businessman Bashar al-Masri is determined to press ahead with construction of the city of Rawabi.

al Masri 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Bashar al-Masri’s Office)
al Masri 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Bashar al-Masri’s Office)
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, Rawabi.
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 Rawabi.
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.
The 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 site.
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 access road.
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 inhabitants.
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.
Relations between 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 age 14.
On his way from school to his father’s office in downtown Nablus, where they lived, he stopped to participate in a demonstration against Israel.
As he walked away, an army jeep arrested him.
“I found 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.
The 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.
“This was 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 it happen.
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 up.
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 Palestinian territories.
When he and his American-born fiancé spoke of marriage 1989, he told her that his one request was to move back there one day.
She responded, “‘Sure, baby, sure.’ I said, ‘No, really.’” She accepted it because she didn’t believe it would happen, he says.
When the 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.
“We 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.
Many 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.
Through 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.
A 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.
Through Massar 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 intifada.
During those first years after he returned, the future seemed bright, he recalls. In 1999 and 2000, Israelis roamed freely around Ramallah.
There was even an Israeli who worked in his office three days a week.
“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 coming.
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 home.
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 this.
“The second intifada was a mistake,” he declares.
With his 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 countries.
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 of diplomacy.
It also focused on internal security.
Business 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 project.
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 future.
“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.