Rawabi July 29, 2011 (Ofer Vaknin)
Bashar al-Masri at the building site Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Simulated plan of Rawabi
A rendering of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, under construction north of Ramallah.
Simulated plan of Rawabi
Simulated plan of Rawabi

A month and a half before the Palestinians are expected to ask the United Nations to recognize their independent state, bulldozers are working diligently on the planned city of Rawabi. The future downtown part of the city, which is located just outside Ramallah, has been leveled already, and rocks used for constructing buildings sit nearby. In fact, laborers are working industriously on the first floors of five buildings, and developers believe that hundreds of families could be moving in within two years.

Rawabi's sales office offers illustrations of buildings and different grades of stone, so customers can choose finishing touches. Details concerning the city's access roads are still unknown, but the developers are building as if Rawabi were a fait accompli.

A visit to the site shows how revolutionary the idea behind that city is - and how badly the Palestinian Authority needs it. On the way, we pass unplanned Arab villages built on slopes and drive through Ramallah, which itself lacks contiguous sidewalks, proper junctions and roads, and a pedestrian-friendly urban center.

Planners of Rawabi - which means "hill" in Arabic - seek to revolutionize housing and construction in general within the PA. The developers say they want to build a Palestinian Modi'in, but better. Qatari company LDR and Palestinian multimillionaire Bashar al-Masri are investing $850 million in the city, which is slated to have six neighborhoods, 10,000 homes and 40,000 residents.

The project, a private initiative, has avoided political scandals so far. Nevertheless, it has recently found itself at the heart of a diplomatic storm. The planning of Rawabi drove Israeli MKs to draft the Boycott Law, after Masri demanded that the project's contractors not use even one screw produced in a settlement when building the city. In response, the MKs voted to subject companies and citizens to lawsuits and fines if they advocate boycotting Israel or the settlements.

Masri says Israeli companies could earn $400 million from the project, but when it comes to the territories, he is not ready to compromise on his principles. "You have to decide whether you want to work with us or buy from the settlers," he says. "Our policy is clear. We do not buy from the settlements in the West Bank or the Golan Heights. With other customers, you can do as you please.

"Palestinian businesses cannot provide us with half the materials we need, even if we help them. At least 100 Israeli companies were ready to sign with us. I hope we can help them unite to make it easier to withstand the pressure. If not, half the demand will be met by foreign companies."

Sources close to Masri say his project does not depend on Israeli companies per se, and that the Boycott Law is a domestic affair with no long-term commercial significance for the project. Nevertheless, they question how such legislation will affect contracts signed with Israeli companies.

'Well-planned city'

Haaretz spoke to several Israeli construction companies, and all declined to confirm that they are involved in the project. Officials at building supply firm Ytong, for example, said the company supplies customers around the country and in the PA, but would not discuss Rawabi.

Masri says changes in Palestinian society spurred the city's construction.

"The young men coming back from abroad do not want to live in a village that lacks running water three days a week," he says. "They do not want to sit with their father in the living room every evening and watch news from Jordan."

Masri's young assistants reflect these changes. They are in their 30s, fluent in English and unmarried. Now, finally, someone intends to free them from having to live with their extended families. Someone is helping them fulfill the Western dream in a new, young city.

Reem Alsheikh, a young woman in her 20s who works with Masri, says she still lives with her parents. Young people love the idea of Rawabi, she says. "Just look at our Facebook page. They ask when they can move in."

How would living there impact their lives?

Alsheikh: "It is a well-planned city that will offer infrastructure, lifestyle and access for disabled people. It is designed so that young people can live in small apartments. We currently do not have such options. The flats in Rawabi will be cheaper than those in Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem, and will draw young people with average incomes."

The project manager, Amir Dajani, says a 115-square-meter, three-bedroom apartment will cost $70,000 to $80,000. The developer arranged for $520 million in financing from a U.S. organization in order to enable young buyers to take out mortgages to buy homes, he says.

"Mortgage payments would equal one-third of an average monthly income of $1,500 a month," explains Dajani.

"The goal is to offer young people apartments that seem expensive, but aren't," adds Masri. "Ten percent of people who contact us are Palestinians abroad who want to send their children back to study or want to buy homes for themselves. Many Palestinians who live abroad want a summer home in Rawabi. There is also major demand from investors, but we prefer that locals live here."

Masri is not concerned about demand because, he says, in the West Bank it outstrips supply by 200,000 homes. "Ten cities like Rawabi are needed," he notes. "Demand increases by 16,000 homes a year. Investors who want to build Rawabi 2 and 3 are watching us."

The city is slated to have a pedestrian-friendly urban center with office space for IT companies, retailers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. There will be bicycle paths, green areas, gray-water systems and a public library. The planners have marked space for a theater, a cafe and public transportation.

Nisreen Shahin, 35, heads the Rawabi Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to promote affordable housing for Rawabi's future residents as well as the town's future schools, museum, cultural center and parks.

"Our second important task is to create workplaces," says Shahin. "The project has already created 8,000 jobs. Masri spends six hours a week interviewing job applicants. Many worked in the Persian Gulf and returned to the PA because of the financial crisis. We are in contact with companies that could offer 3,000 to 4,000 jobs in telecommunications in the city and would build an advanced communications infrastructure that facilitates economic growth."

What sort of people will move here?

"Young professionals with a moderate income."

Where are they living today?

"In Ramallah, next to their parents. They are looking for a place to live with infrastructure and opportunities. Rawabi will not only give them a place to live but also an opportunity to work and grow. The place where you live and its atmosphere affect how you think. If people live in a secure, green place with jobs, they will be more open and think more positively."

This touches upon geo-political issues and national mentality. Will a young couple with a five-room apartment in a young neighborhood near Ramallah still want to move to Israel, as part of the Palestinian right of return? Will flats in a new project similar to those in Holon and Modi'in arouse feelings as strong as those for an old Arab house in Ein Karem? Masri is not sure.

"I do not think improving the economy can solve political problems. A good economy can encourage a settlement. The Palestinian problem was never a matter of money," he says.

Urban advancement

Architect Naama Malis of Givatayim describes the urbanization process: People change their occupations as they abandon agriculture, the birthrate drops and education levels rise.

"Cities have large economic and creative power, and could advance Palestinian society. It is important that people move into cities in order to preserve open areas. It is obviously very important to Israel due to total territorial contiguity."

"Such a city will attract a population that can pay," says Yuval Yasky, head of the architecture department at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. "It is a completely entrepreneurial project. There are developed cities in the PA and the young generation is heading toward a totally different way of life. There are many people in the liberal professions and the stereotype of the noble savage was forced upon them."

Yasky notes there are problems inherent in preplanning an entire city. Making a second Modi'in is not exactly the dream of every town planner: "Many ideas do not work when they are developed from scratch. I believe that over the years, the city will develop into a more real city," he says.

The developers involved in Rawabi apparently did not anticipate all the challenges they would face. The first problem was establishing territorial contiguity within the city. In a place where the concept of "state-owned land" is a loaded one, and its significance is disputed, the developers had to buy private property.

"We bought it from 2,000 families who live abroad," says Dajani. "We had to get to Canada, Iraq, Spain, Kuwait, Britain, Portugal and Italy. We tracked down families who left in 1948 and 1967 and the land was still registered in their name. It took more than two years."

The result is a construction site that spreads over two ridges, 700 meters above sea level. Sixty-five cameras are documenting their progress. There are still many open questions there. The area is covered with dust because the developers haven't received a license to build access roads for trucks yet. Every day, more than 100 trucks pass through, forcing a tanker to sprinkle water in order to clear the dust. The stones used for construction come directly from the site. Waste generated does not leave the area; rather it is used to fill and level the future municipal park, explains Masri.

It is still not clear where the city's water supply will come from. One possibility is via the neighboring Israeli settlement of Ateret, whose waterworks are run by Mekorot, Israel's water utility. Masri is also looking into getting a permit to drill in the area or to link up to a neighboring Palestinian village's water system.

Up the hill, outside Rawabi, more construction is under way. Masri says it is the work of landowners who received permission from Rawabi's developers to work on their own property.

Homes are not being sold yet, but the developers already have received 7,000 requests to buy homes. A third of the future city's area has been leveled, and they have enough rocks to build the first homes. The entrepreneurs believe people will start moving in by 2013, although they cannot say whether the city will have utilities or sewage pipes by then.

Nor is it clear what will happen regarding the town's access road. Two kilometers of road need to pass through an area under complete Israeli control (Area C ) and the building permit is long overdue. Project officials say the hurdles could delay Rawabi's completion by six to nine months.

What awaits in September

Masri is slender, relatively young and European in appearance, far from the classic developer. He tries not to raise the "nationalist banner" and gives the entire project an entrepreneurial spin. But still, his biggest problem is the possibility that in September, the PA will declare the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Political turmoil could possibly destroy the initiative. A few years ago, Masri had had a Rawabi-like project planned for the Gaza Strip. Half a year after the project was launched, Hamas took over the coastal strip in a violent coup and the project was shelved.

"We would have been in deep trouble if the Hamas coup had happened two years later," he observes. "In view of the risks, this is not the hottest place for a real-estate venture. There are better places to build, but life is full of challenges and it is important not to bow to the status quo. A scientist does whatever he can. A doctor does whatever he can. I am a businessman."

Will you make money from the project?

Masri: "I want to make sure we are profitable or at least cover our expenses. My profit will be a fraction of what I make in other projects in the world. I could have sold the apartments for more money but that would have a social impact."

What will be your return on capital?

"Terrific. We sleep well."