Model city

Bashar al-Masri is the driving force behind Rawabi, the largest private-sector project ever carried out in the Palestinian areas.

Entrepreneur Basher al-Masri shows off his Rawabi project, February 23 (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH 90)
Entrepreneur Basher al-Masri shows off his Rawabi project, February 23
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH 90)
THE VIEW from Rawabi is nothing short of breathtaking.
The drive to Rawabi, located in the West Bank just 10 kilometers north of Ramallah, may be the most pastoral in the entire Land of Israel: Route 465 is a narrow, two-lane road that winds its way through picturesque olive groves, traditional agricultural terraces and mainly open space, eventually giving way to a bustling construction site on an isolated hilltop.
In this setting, the Palestinian city-in-waiting is almost an anomaly. With its breathtaking views and deep wadis on three sides, the setting seems more suited to a traditional agricultural village than to a modern urban center. The Tel Aviv skyline is indeed clearly visible in the distance to the west from the upper floors of Rawabi’s apartment buildings, but closer to home there is little to break the landscape apart from a few solitary Arab villages – and the Jewish community of Ateret, one of the most isolated Jewish villages in the West Bank, located a kilometer away on a parallel hilltop.
Standing on a ridge surveying the building site, Bashar al-Masri’s face displays an expression that is at once chiseled with stress and deeply satisfied. The billionaire investor, who is the driving force behind the development, the largest private-sector project ever carried out in the Palestinian areas, says he is proud of the progress Rawabi has made since he conceived of it in 2008. He adds, however, that he is also keenly aware that there is much work to be done. His eyes narrow as he receives a weekly report from a construction foreman, and both men are businesslike as they compare the plans laid out on an oversized blueprint to the actual city rising before them.
A youthful 53 years old, al-Masri says the billion-dollar project is much more than a housing development. “What you see here is Palestinians building something for Palestinians,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “Sure, there are obstacles to overcome – Israel controls our borders and we’ve had trouble getting permits to build access roads. The Civil Administration has been slow to grant permits for our water supply.
“But none of that means we should sit idly by and do nothing. Yes, we have challenges that don’t exist in other places, but we are committed to creating something new and vibrant here, and it’s happening, right before our eyes. The dream is already a reality – Rawabi (meaning the hills in Arabic). Yes, there is a long way to go, but we’ve passed the tipping point,” al-Masri says.
That accomplishment is readily apparent as soon as Rawabi’s high-rise buildings come into view. Two, out of an eventual 23 residential neighborhoods, are nearly complete, as is a hillside amphitheater (capacity 10,000) with an adjacent soccer field.
In the city center, construction is under way for 20,000 square meters of retail space and 70,000 square meters of office space. The downtown area will also feature a medical center, mosque and an arts complex. All buildings have wheelchair access. Rawabi officials say they are “in negotiations” with major international chain stores to open branches in the new city center when it opens (city officials declined to say which chain stores were involved in current negotiations to open stores in Rawabi because no deals had been signed by press time).
Al-Masri had hoped for people to begin moving in during the summer of 2013, but construction delays – mainly, he claims, due to Israeli closures or administrative difficulties – set the project back by a year or more. An important feature of the Rawabi construction site is a fully functioning industrial area, complete with stone quarry, water recycling plant and storage facilities. Project managers say Israeli closures have been thankfully rare since construction began in 2011, but they continue to store sand, cement, gravel and other raw materials so construction can continue even in the event of a closure.
In addition, all the heavy equipment and production facilities used to build Rawabi are owned by al-Masri’s Bayti Real Estate Investment Company. At the quarry, the stone cut from the rocky hillside looks similar to Jerusalem stone, only darker; workers here call it “Palestine gold,” and say they have quarried enough for the entire city. The stone-cutting plant is the largest of its type in the West Bank. There is also a cement plant (utilizing recycled water) and a factory for stone bricks.
Driving around the city clearly illustrates that al-Masri’s “can do” ethic and civic pride plays an important role in the life of the city as it (literally) gets off the ground. Palestinian flags adorn nearly every work vehicle, from cement mixers to pick-up trucks to dump trucks and more. According to Jack Nasser, an aide to al-Masri, the enormous flag at the sales center, located high above the construction site on the highest peak in the immediate area, is the largest flag ever flown in Israel or the Palestinian Authority.
As befits a construction site on a rainy day in mid-February, the unpaved roads and sidewalks are a mixture of puddles and mud. But one is struck by the lack of litter throughout the site. World Health Organization officials estimate that more than 90 percent of Arab men smoke, but there is a conspicuous lack of cigarette butts on the ground. Construction workers get back to work after lunch with energy and purpose. Up at the visitors’ center, cars are parked neatly in parallel painted parking spots, despite the fact that there is not enough traffic yet to warrant a clearly defined parking lot. Nasser’s insistence on obeying traffic laws, even though the only cars around are construction vehicles, belies a deep respect for Rawabi that is both impressive and infectious.
“I think it is safe to say that for everyone involved with Rawabi – the 8,000 workers who are building the city and the 600 families who have already purchased homes here – watching the city come to fruition is a dream come true,” Nasser tells The Report. He is a native of Ramallah who expects to take possession of his three-bedroom apartment in early 2015.
“We are building our own state, taking matters into our own hands. Palestinians do not have to live abroad. They can live here, in Palestine, and enjoy a very solid middle-class life,” Nasser adds. “Most of the tradesmen working here perfected their skills building the settlements; now they can apply their skills here, building something for Palestinians rather than for the occupation.”
Meanwhile, across the wadi...
Not surprisingly, one of the greatest issues of concern for Rawabi officials is located on the adjacent hill to the south – the Jewish community of Ateret.
For his part, al-Masri seems to entertain a host of contradictions on this point. On one hand, he counts many Jews in Israel and abroad as supporters. He has taken flak for contracting with Israeli suppliers for construction in Rawabi, mainly from Palestinian groups that support a total boycott of Israel. He speaks passionately about Rawabi’s potential to become the anchor of a Palestinian technology sector, with Arab companies working in concert with Israeli businesses to participate jointly in the global marketplace.
On the other hand, Rawabi officials are also committed to boycotting the settlements – original supply contracts prohibited Israeli suppliers from using settlement-made raw materials in Rawabi. Artistic renderings of the new city do not show any villages – Arab or Jewish – in the area, and Nasser says it “isn’t right” for residents of Ateret to be living where they are. “It isn’t their land; they came and stole it,” he asserts.
IN THAT light, it is perhaps even more surprising that some settlement officials and residents of Ateret take a more generous view of the developments across the valley. True, settlement officials and local residents say they would object to any political discussions as a result of Rawabi’s existence. For instance, al-Masri said he would like Israel to rezone the entire Rawabi industrial zone, which currently traverses areas B (under Palestinian civilian control but Israeli security control) and C (under full Israeli control), to Area B or even Area A (full Palestinian control).
But residents and settlement officials alike also note they could potentially support the new community rising on the opposite hill. “Rawabi is a completely normal development,” says Dani Dayan, Chief Foreign Envoy of the Judea and Samaria Council in a phone conversation with The Report in early March. “I don’t think it is terribly far-reaching to acknowledge that the Palestinians need housing, and there is no reason this need shouldn’t be accommodated. Furthermore, there is no reason not to have Jewish and Arab-owned businesses there, with Jews working in Palestinian-owned businesses and vice versa.
“But it is important for both groups to realize that the other population is here to stay. We don’t want to kick the Palestinians out, but we want them to recognize that we are also legitimate residents of this land, and that like them, we are here to stay,” Dayan contends.
In addition, al-Masri has also been criticized in some circles for his insistence that Rawabi housing will not be available to Palestinian refugees. Al-Masri accepts the criticism to a point – he freely acknowledges that the refugee issue is a critical one, but he says it is too large an issue for one private investor to tackle alone.
Furthermore, al-Masri claims that current Palestinian Authority statistics indicate a housing shortage of about 200,000 units. He says that number is expected to double by 2025 – way over the head of Rawabi’s 6,000 apartments.
“Even if we tripled our construction over the next 10 years, we wouldn’t even cover 5 percent of the expected housing shortage,” al-Masri explains. “So the refugee issue isn’t really on our radar, though it is an important one. The state must create low-income housing – for refugees, for service workers, for that sector of our society that requires it. Commercially, it can’t really be done without significant government involvement.”
Still, al-Masri stresses the net contribution of the city-in-waiting to the nascent State of Palestine. With housing prices ranging from $68,000 to $198,000, Rawabi will be home to well-established middle-class families, and will provide thousands of jobs for service providers who do not have the means to purchase homes here. To that end, four mortgage banks – Bank of Palestine, Cairo- Amman Bank, Arab Islamic Bank and Arab Bank – have opened glass-fronted offices for potential mortgage customers, offering traditional mortgages as well as interest-free “Islamic financing” for observant Muslims (the banks get around the Islamic prohibition on charging interest by charging “service fees” for administering the loans).
At the end of the day, al-Masri says that constructing a swath of buildings on the rocky West Bank terrain has been the easy part of his dream. Crafting the cement into a community – attracting families, creating jobs, building infrastructure and public facilities – is the harder part of the task, made harder still by the fact that it all has to come together (or at least begin to come together) at the same time.
But he adds that it is a challenge that cuts to the very heart of Palestinian national aspirations.
“The question is no longer ‘Will there be a Palestinian state?’ but rather ‘What sort of state will it be?’ How will we deal with social issues? Will we need handouts, or will we be economically viable?” al Masri says.
“My answer to those questions is clear: People want to work hard and to enjoy the fruits of first-class living. In that sense, Rawabi is really a paradigm for everything we are trying to create in our new state.”