This Palestinian Came From Canada With a Dream – Israeli Settlers and the Army Came Together to Thwart It

Khaled Al Sabawi had a vision — developing affordable building lots in the West Bank to Palestinians. But sales stopped almost completely due to settlers’ harassment and the pressure they put on the army

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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One of Khaled Al Sabawi's employees and a potential lot buyer near the West Bank Palestinian village of Turmusaya.
One of Khaled Al Sabawi's employees and a potential lot buyer near the West Bank Palestinian village of Turmusaya. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The Israeli army officer extended his hand to Khaled Al Sabawi and said with a smile, “Sabawi or Wasabi?”

Sabawi, a 36-year-old Palestinian-Canadian entrepreneur, immediately knew that the man standing opposite him, Lt. Col. Elad Goren, had done his homework. He had clearly read the blog in which Sabawi described the border control officer at Ben-Gurion International Airport who had trouble reading his name and had confused it with the spicy Japanese condiment.

The meeting with Goren, who heads Israel’s District Coordination and Liaison Office for the Ramallah area of the , took place on July 4 at the headquarters of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, built on Palestinian land of El Bireh. The pair weren’t meeting to discuss Sabawi’s great passion – the startup he founded in Canada, that encourages people from around the world to develop and write their own screenplays, by means of competitions.

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Sabawi, who studied both engineering and screen writing, plans to make money from the venture, but he’s in no hurry. For now, he’s enjoying arranging online meetings between young scriptwriters of every background and nationality and encouraging them to “tell a story.”

Nor did another of Sabawi’s initiatives come up in the conversation with the Israeli – an anti-smoking campaign within the Palestinian enclaves.

“Unfortunately, I discovered that my colleagues in the business sector wouldn’t sign a petition against smoking because they have shares in the companies that import cigarettes,” he told Haaretz. “Evil is when you take advantage of someone’s vulnerability,” he quipped.

Vandalism

What had brought Sabawi to the Civil Administration office was his position as CEO and vice chairman of a real estate firm founded by his father. More precisely, he was there to discuss several acts of vandalism that the company suffered on land it had bought in the West Bank Palestinian village of Turmusaya, northeast of Ramallah, a few days after infrastructure work began on June 12.

At the time of the July meeting at the Civil Administration, the vandalism was still relatively minor. Twice, the red pennants that surveyors had placed on the land to mark its perimeters and internal boundaries had been removed. “The people of Israel lives” was spray-painted in Hebrew on a rock, along with a Star of David.

Later in July, as Sabawi’s meetings with other Israeli officials continued – including talks with the head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Ghassan Alian, and the head of the army’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan – the vandalism intensified and grew in frequency.

There were daily incursions onto the company’s private property. Armed Israeli civilians intimidated workers and a contractor, even forcing them off the site several times.

The tires of a surveying vehicle were punctured. Its windshield was also broken and expensive equipment was stolen from it. Israelis also erected tents and trailer homes (later removed) on the site. Demonstrations and prayers were held there. And newly laid asphalt on a road was broken up in several places. Yet not a single suspect was apprehended, arrested or put on trial.

The threat of an army post

At a meeting on July 29, Padan suggested to Sabawi that the army put a watchtower in the middle of his property. Sabawi, who had previously heard the idea from other Civil Administration officials, replied that it would drive buyers away.

“I told them ‘You can’t just put a military outpost in the middle of private property before you’ve proven that there’s a security threat. And you can’t prove that there is. And if there is – it isn’t coming from us.’”

Khaled Al Sabawi on the land his company bought in the West Bank Palestinian village of Turmusaya, northeast of Ramallah.
Khaled Al Sabawi on the land his company bought in the West Bank Palestinian village of Turmusaya, northeast of Ramallah.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Why did the unknown perpetrators begin their harassment? On July 2, an article on the Ynet news website reported that residents in the area of the settlement of Shiloh and smaller associated settlements had decided that Sabawi was building a “Palestinian town” nearby, and that the Civil Administration had approved the plan because it was told the work was being done to lay the groundwork for agricultural paths.

Among the smaller settlements associated with Shiloh north of Ramallah, there are a number of unauthorized outposts that have a documented history of violence against residents of the area. It was through the use of such violence that they gradually took over a large portion of the space between the Palestinian villages.

In his Ynet article, Elisha Ben Kimon reported that the settlers had sent a letter to asking that the work be stopped. The settlers claimed that the construction was “leading to real harm to the personal security of every one of the Israelis who lives in the Shiloh bloc communities, particularly Amichai,” a reference to a new settlement established for .

At the time, it was also reported that the army was studying the matter.

The pressure worked

The pressure, threats and damage bore fruit. The work on Sabawi’s company’s land was halted during the fall Jewish holidays in October. It was understood that it would start again shortly after, and only within the plot itself. On October 27, the contractor and his staff sought to continue to lay the asphalt for roads within the plot, but they were prevented from doing so by armed Israelis.

Rather than evicting the Israelis, soldiers ordered the contractor and his Palestinian workers to leave. Col. Yonatan Steinberg, who since August has been the commander of the Binyamin Regional Brigade, instructed the Civil Administration to instruct Sabawi to stop the work on his land until further notice.

As a result, the contractor has been unable to pour concrete for sidewalks along the roads.

“Padan told me that our hill is higher than the Amihai settlement, and that’s what presents the security risk,” Sabawi told Haaretz. “But it is [the settlers] who pose the only security risk. They attacked us. They threatened us. They came here armed.”

When it comes to the Ynet report, it should be noted that the Civil Administration has no authority to approve or withhold approval for work at the site – because it is in Area B – according to the artificial division of the West Bank agreed to in the , which was to have come to an end in 1999.

The Palestinian Authority has administrative and planning responsibility in Area B while Israel maintains security responsibility. But Israeli responsibility for security has not led Israeli law enforcement authorities to prevent the continued acts of vandalism.

In addition, the intelligence gathered by the settlers, and which was the basis of their SOS to Netanyahu at such an early stage, was faulty. No new Palestinian town is to be built there. What Sabawi’s company is doing here, on the land of Turmusaya and in four other areas in the central West Bank is preparing for sale building lots that in the future might become residential neighborhoods.

West Bank settlement of Amihai.
West Bank settlement of Amihai.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Every day of delay in the work inflicts financial losses on Sabawi’s company. Sabawi said the value of his company’s shares on the Palestinian stock exchange have fallen and that its third quarter 2019 profits have shrunk by about 50 percent compared to the equivalent quarter last year.

Petition to the High Court

Sabawi turned to Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard for help. After Padan and Alian had not responded to a warning letter, he filed an urgent petition at the end of November with Israel’s High Court of Justice in a bid to require the authorities to allow the continuation of the work and prevent sabotage.

If a Palestinian caused damage to Israeli construction work, the developer would not have had to resort to filing a High Court petition, Sfard commented. The authorities would have immediately intervened, arresting the suspects and putting them on trial in military court.

Supreme Court Justice Alex Stein did not view the petition as an urgent case, however, and gave the state a month to respond, rejecting an additional request to shorten the period.

When Haaretz asked the army spokesman’s office if the case was not an example of a surrender to settler violence, the office said it would respond in court.

The company responsible for the project, Union Construction and Investment, was founded by Sabawi’s father, Mohamed Al Sabawi. The founding of the company reflected the hope that wealthy Palestinians had in the 1990s, when the Oslo Accords were signed. The hope was reinforced by senior officials in Western countries who called on entrepreneurs to investment in the and the West Bank, develop, make a profit and thus support the peace process.

Expelled from Salameh

Mohamed Al Sabawi was a child when Israeli officers expelled him and his family from the village of Salameh, east of Jaffa, to Gaza in 1948. At the time, the Sabawi family had a deed proving its ownership of 200 dunams (50 acres) of the village’s total area of 6,782 dunams. The loss of the land encouraged Sabawi Sr. to think bigger.

He moved from Gaza to Kuwait, where he joined the staff of an insurance company. He then started his own commercial and marketing businesses, completed a Ph.D. in risk management, married a woman from Gaza whom he had met in Cairo and all this without being a citizen of any country. Rather than a national passport, he had a laissez-passer document.

The family decided to seek a more secure future by immigrating to Canada when Khaled was 3. The first thing they did when they received Canadian citizenship, in the early 1990s, was to visit their ancestral homeland and mourn what they had lost. They also decided to jump on the bandwagon of construction and rehabilitation in the 1967 occupied territory, and were not oblivious to the promise of financial profits.

Mohamed Al Sabawi set up an insurance company in Gaza, followed by a construction firm. Since the mid 1990s he has been entering his place of birth (historical Palestine) with an Israeli visa.

His energetic son Khaled, who was 25 at the time, dreamed about green construction that would use underground geothermal energy to maintain comfortable building temperatures in both winter and summer. Due to Israeli movement restrictions, the company that he founded for the venture moved to Jordan. There, however, as a result of bureaucracy and the drop in the price of oil, there was increasingly less demand for his relatively expensive product. The company now exists only on paper.

Shift in focus to West Bank land business

Khaled then shifted his focus to another business idea that his father had come up with: offering affordable building lots in the West Bank to middle-class Palestinians – interest-free over a five-year period.

The land Sabawi buys and sells is only in Area A and Area B of the West Bank, where the Oslo Accords endowed the Palestinian authorities with administrative and planning authorities. Sabawi’s company does not operate in Area C, which constitutes 62 percent of the West Bank, not including , and where Israel maintains full administrative and planning authority. It is very unlikely that Israeli authorities would grant a Palestinian a permit to install even a single metal rod.

Khaled Al Sabawi speaking with potential buyers on his company’s private property.
Khaled Al Sabawi speaking with potential buyers on his company’s private property. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The project is named TABO Palestine, Tabo referring to the process of land deed registry. The company looks for land in the West Bank that is available for sale. Company representatives then seek out the many heirs to each plot to secure their agreement to sell and to ensure that no forgery is involved.

In the rare instances in which the land is already registered in the Palestinian land registry – as is the case in Turmusaya – the attention then shifts to preparing a master plan for the area in cooperation with the local councils, paving roads to and within the site and connecting the site to the electricity grid. The company cannot connect the sites to the water infrastructure, because this requires Israeli approval, which if granted is only after many years of tedious negotiations.

A bureaucratic obstacle course

In the many cases in which ownership of the land is not recorded in the land registry (because Israel froze in 1967 the registry process that had started earlier by British and Jordanian authorities), the company and its lawyers do so after having purchased the stock. This involves a bureaucratic obstacle course via nine Palestinian Authority ministries and departments, where efficiency is wanting.

The centralized purchase of land and its division into smaller plots for sale streamlines the process and protects the purchaser from the risk of forgery or the need to bear the expense of stringing electricity lines or paving an access road. In its eight years in business, the TABO project has purchased and prepared 1,500 dunams of land for resale to individuals. The buyers can then build their own homes at their own pace and in the style of their preference.

So far, however, only 15 houses – including the company’s model homes – have actually been built, on four plots, Sabawi told Haaretz. For the buyers, their investment has mainly been for the future. The project in Turmusaya is 150 dunams in area and is divided into 94 individual lots.

In June, about a quarter of them were sold within two weeks at about $60,000 each on average. Further away from Ramallah, Sabawi's business offer plots with prices that are about half that.

Sales nearly at a standstill

But the sales have stopped almost completely in the past four months due to the settlers’ harassment and the pressure they put on the army. There has also been an attempt on social media to present the master plan as Israeli – and to call on Jews to buy lots there. In addition to the ruse itself, it could create suspicions among Palestinians that Sabawi bought the land from Palestinians on false pretenses – to sell it to settlers.

Nevertheless, potential buyers are still showing some interest. On Wednesday, a resident of the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem came for a second visit, a day after his first. This time he came with his wife and daughter. On the prior visit, two youngsters, their earlocks long and curly, blocked his path to the site. But he wasn’t deterred.

He works for the Israeli company SodaStream at its factory at Lehavim in the northern Negev. He has regular contact with Israelis and has dreamed of a weekend house in a beautiful landscape. “But first I have to pay off the cost of the lot over the next five years,” he noted.

On Wednesday morning, Sabawi looked pensive and absorbed in thought. He was standing on the land that he had purchased at the beginning of the year, gazing at the olive groves surrounding it and at the terraces and plowed fields. It looks like Tuscany, he remarked.

Palestine “is a test case,” he said. “It tests your resourcefulness, your Zen abilities, but at the same time, it’s really interesting. It is easy to practice zen on an isolated mountain, but real Zen is in the eye of a hurricane, with chaos all around.”

Sabawi resorted to his Zen from the beginning, as his father’s right-hand man – when in 2009 he ran into problems in receiving an Israeli visa to stay in the West Bank and to enter Israel. It also came in handy when he was forced to face the Palestinian Authority’s institutional foot dragging and laxity. Criticism from Sabawi and his father led to open friction with senior Palestinian officials – and the Palestinian land authority’s refusal to register his company’s ownership to the land that it purchased. The authority only relented following a ruling by the Palestinian high court of justice on a petition filed by Sabawi.

Surprisingly, Sabawi remarked, “Sometimes I feel like I’m 99.9 percent Canadian.” For example, when the burning of trash in Palestinian cities and villages upsets him, and when he shows zero tolerance for corruption. He is especially Canadian in his expectation that Israeli law enforcement authorities will do their duty and protect his workers and his project from harm.

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