Welcome to Rawabi, a Palestinian Ghost Town Attracting Thousands of Visitors

Just over a decade ago, ground was broken on Rawabi – which was billed as a game-changer in the West Bank. A visit to the hilltop city is a confusing experience, though, with a lively center contrasting with empty neighborhoods

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A signpost pointing to the West Bank city of Rawabi.
A signpost pointing to the West Bank city of Rawabi. Credit: Moti Milrod
Ari Flanzraich
Ari Flanzraich
Ari Flanzraich
Ari Flanzraich

It is impossible not to notice the 10 large Palestinian flags flying over Rawabi as you approach this new West Bank city – the first such development in modern times.

Rawabi markets itself as a unifier of Palestinian interests and an actionable road map for statehood, replacing the grandiose promise-making of traditional leadership with literal facts on the ground. It also positions itself as a liberal and innovative island: home to a high-tech hub to bolster Palestinian ventures; a church and mosque to ensure religious equality for all Palestinian citizens; and the only Cambridge-certified English academy in the West Bank.

Located in Area A – placing it, on paper at least, under full control of the Palestinian Authority – and situated some 35 minutes north of Ramallah, construction began here in 2010, financed initially by the Palestinian-American entrepreneur Bashar Masri and aided by substantial Qatari funds.

Nearly 600 apartments had been sold by 2013, but the project ran into trouble when Israel balked at hooking Rawabi up to the water supply. (As the occupying power, Israel controls all utilities in the West Bank.) Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally approved the connection in early 2015 and the first residents moved in later that year.

The city's population currently stands at 5,000, though not all are residentsCredit: Alex Levac

To date, 1,600 housing units have been built in five of the city’s 22 planned neighborhoods, with work underway on an additional 400 in a sixth. The master plan is for 6,000 units eventually.

Rawabi stands alone on a hilltop, giving it a certain hermetic quality away from other Palestinian centers. At its heart, though, the city feels like a kind of expanded Mamilla, for those who know the chic outdoor shopping area in Jerusalem. Shops and restaurants, passageways and public seating are all packed into a tight center surrounded by rows of bulky buildings – much like the settlement blocs, ironically.

The city treads a thin line between initiating a paradigm shift in Palestinian urban planning and preserving the rootedness of Palestinian village life.

According to the city’s official website, its neighborhoods were given “unique” names that sounded “a little strange,” as they were “taken from the ancient Semitic languages.” Makmaata” (“rock”), Suwan (“flint”), Ikshaf (“magic” or “witchcraft”) and Tersah (“happiness” or “amusement”) were some of the names chosen, to “symbolize the city’s connection to the Canaanite Palestinian past.”

Bashar Masri, the Palestinian-American entrepreneur behind Rawabi. Credit: Moti Milrod

Safe haven?

In a 2013 interview given while construction was underway, Masri attributed his main source of inspiration to Reston, Virginia, and the planned suburbs outside of Cairo. He also sent a group of engineers to scout out the central Israeli city of Modi’in, which was “built around a similar topography.”

The city is near a cluster of Palestinian villages and one Israeli settlement, Ateret, whose residents have long opposed Rawabi’s construction.

Despite the painfully slow building process, Rawabi has gained popularity among wealthier Palestinians and has also attracted Arab Israelis, who apparently purchase apartments for leisurely weekend getaways or convenient stopovers during business trips. The average price of a condo here starts at $65,000.

During a recent visit, I sat down with the city’s first-ever mayor, Ibrahim Natour, and asked him about the main obstacles facing the city just over a decade after breaking ground.

“First of all, not obstacles – we prefer to define things as challenges; this makes it easier to deal with things,” he says. “We have a lot of typical challenges regarding the planning phase of the city. It is the first city that has been built or planned in thousands of years for the Palestinians.”

He stressed the obstacles posed by what he calls “occupation politics” – Israeli “stalling” of any developments initiated by Palestinians, and later embittering them, “starting with day-to-day life. You may find a small checkpoint at the entrance to any Palestinian city.”

I interrupt him to explain that I am referring specifically to Rawabi, not the West Bank as a whole. “Rawabi is part of the West Bank, and because of this we are not out of the system,” he responds.

Asked about the presence and role of the Arab Israeli population in the city, Natour hastens to correct me: “We’re not looking at them as Arab Israelis: they’re Palestinians. To be Palestinian is not about having an [Israeli] ID card. I’m Palestinian but I’m from Jerusalem. We don’t discriminate.”

He says the municipality has not compiled data on how many of the city’s apartments are owned by Arab Israelis: “Someone who just has this kind of statistic is discriminatory,” he says.

Natour is happier to explain what Rawabi’s biggest draw is for Arab Israelis: “They’re looking for a safe place,” he says, highlighting the “gangsters” and “shootings” currently haunting the Arab Israeli community – signs of what he calls “unpeaceful living.”

“The second thing,” he says, “is that Rawabi is introducing a kind of modern, urban neighborhood that gives you top-of-the-line infrastructure and services that are decent for people. Arab Israelis come because they don’t want to feel like second-class citizens.” Natour notes that he feels that acutely as a Jerusalem resident himself, with a “second home” in the Kafr ’Aqab neighborhood.

Rawabi city center, which resembles a larger Mamilla Mall.Credit: Ari Flanzraich

Yet despite early hopes of attracting as many as 40,000 residents, Rawabi’s current population sits at a somewhat meager 5,000, of whom 70 percent consider the city their permanent home. A municipal official described the other 30 percent as “weekend/vacation” visitors. Except for wealthier Palestinians holding dual citizenship, it stands to reason that many of them are Arab Israelis – the only ones capable of passing through the border crossings uninhibited.

Amal, a 46-year-old resident of the Arab Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, has been following developments in Rawabi since its conception, and his brother was among the first to buy a property there shortly after the initiative went public.

After many visits to the city, his experiences are at odds with his expectations. “I thought there would be people living there. They are selling lots of apartments, but no one is living there: you pass through in the evening and the place is empty,” he says. “You don’t feel as though this place is a city – it’s lifeless.”

Amal was surprised by the demographic breakdown of the city, which had marketed itself as a stepping-stone in the direction of statehood. “I also asked how many residents come from outside [i.e., Arab Israelis]. I had the impression that at least 80 percent were from [the West Bank]. You see all the yellow [Israeli] car license plates and most of them come every few months for a visit – but they’re never going to tell you that,” he says, referring to the municipality.

Rawabi managed to ensure a consistent stream of investors eager to take advantage of Western-style mortgages, with competitive interest rates (tied to U.S. Treasury bonds) and long-term payment plans. But that has done little in the way of forming an identity consistent with broader Palestine and representing the average citizen.

“The simpler villagers of the West Bank see Rawabi as something alien and ill-fitting,” Amal says. “In their eyes, people are getting killed yet in Rawabi they’re throwing parties. Someone who goes to live in Rawabi is ‘different,’ unlike the rest. Rawabi is drinking, smoking and partying. For the simple people, Rawabi is simply not good,” he adds.

Rawabi, the Palestinian city on a hill, during its construction in 2014. Credit: Moti Milrod

Palestinian elites

Rawabi is seen as an especially attractive option for the Palestinian middle classes. Unlike Ramallah and Nablus, where most wealthier Palestinians are centered, the new city is devoid of Israeli checkpoints and its walls are not filled with portraits of shahids (martyrs) – making it perhaps the only urban Palestinian setting without visible traces of the occupation.

The city offers a confusing experience, though. The central strip is usually bustling late into the night, while the outer residential areas feel like a ghost town, with few cars and little movement. Many buildings are still under construction, and even flats with occupants are often shuttered and their balconies empty.

Arab Israelis seemingly go to Rawabi for a taste of “real” Palestinian life, while the Palestinian elites go there for a little less of that.

A soccer pitch in Rawabi.Credit: Ari Flanzraich

Natour’s representative, a Ramallah native, suggests as much when I ask her why Arab Israelis might be attracted to the city. “I think Arab Israelis are looking for an experience of true Arab life,” she says – which seemingly contradicts Natour’s assertion that there is no distinction between Arab Israelis and West Bank Palestinians.

When I ask what she has planned for the upcoming weekend, she giddily mentions joining a group of friends on the beach in Tel Aviv – with permits guaranteed by her official position at Rawabi.

And while the occupation may not be visible on the walls of Rawabi, it is still impossible for those living here to escape it. Natour expresses concern over the city’s future and potential attempts by settlers to strangle it, as has been documented in cities such as Ramallah, Nablus and other major Palestinian economic centers.

“Nowadays, we’re struggling against a new kind of civilian occupation – like a settler coming through with sheep and cows, and starting to construct a new settlement,” he says. “Look, under international law, settlements are illegal. There is but one option in the face of settlements: resistance – legal, civilian and otherwise.” He doesn’t bother to elaborate on the “otherwise.”

Rawabi in the West Bank. Bustling metropolis, it ain't – not yet, anyway. Credit: Ari Flanzraich

I conclude by asking him about the possibility of more Rawabis being built in the West Bank.

“If any new city like Rawabi will start, will the Israelis let it go? I don’t know the answer,” he replies. “This city has been built up and it’s a living city. If we tried, as Palestinians, to start another city – for example, in Jenin or Hebron – will the story be the same? Will it be easier? Will it be harder?”

I put the question back to him.

“I don’t think so,” he replies with a smile.

Palestinian laborers working on an apartment block in Rawabi five years ago. The city remains a work in progress.Credit: REUTERS

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