Border Control / Building the First Modern City in Palestine

On a hill north of Bir Zeit, a private real estate company plans to build the first Palestinian city in Judea and Samaria since 1967. Apartment buildings and cottages will join high-tech centers, malls and parks.

Dr. Samih al-Abid did not attend the conference of donor countries in Paris. The Palestinian architect, one of the people behind the Geneva Initiative and a veteran peace activist, partly lost hope and partly wanted to do something at home. Or, more accurately, he wanted to do something to create homes. Abid worked until recently in the Construction and Housing Ministry. He knows, firsthand, about the dimensions of the housing problem in the West Bank. He opted to set aside the two-state talks and not to rely too much on handouts.

Instead, Abid is starting to build roofs to cover Palestinians. He found that, in the coming decade, there would be a shortage of approximately 30,000 housing units per year for West Bank residents. Natural growth is having its affect and young couples are forced to crowd into their parents' homes. Even those who can purchase a modest apartment find a long line stretches out ahead of them at contractors' offices.

Planning big

Abid joined the Palestinian real estate company, Bayti Real Estate Development, which plans to build the first new Palestinian city in Judea and Samaria since 1967. The company chairman, businessman Bashar Masri, last week launched the model for Rawabi (which means "hills" in Arabic), the new city to be built on a hill lying north of Bir Zeit, a 20-minute drive from Ramallah.

Some 4,000 housing units intended to house 25,000 residents will be built mostly in Area A (Palestinian security and civil control) and some in Area B (Palestinian civil control only). Only the road to Ramallah crosses 300 meters into Area C (full Israeli control), and the company is concerned the checkpoint on the way home will deter buyers. In any case, they are also planning a direct road from Rawabi to Ramallah, scheduled to open in 2010.

If the Palestinian Authority's planning agencies sign the documents, the cornerstone will be laid as early as this spring. Masri stresses this a purely economic venture involving the private sector. The estimated total cost is $200 million. A large part of the investment will be allocated by the Maser International Company, which built similar affordable income projects for communities in Morocco. However, the company alone will not be able to carry the steep costs of setting up water, electricity, sewage and telephone infrastructure for the new city. Masri said he understands the PA cannot bear the burden. He expects President Mahmoud Abbas will return from Paris with a commitment from donor countries to aid construction of the first settlement in Judea and Samaria to enjoy an international consensus. Masri says Rawabi is only the beginning. If everything proceeds smoothly, the company will build other new cities adjacent to Nablus, Jenin, and Hebron, which are also suffering from population explosions.

The apartments, most of them in high-rise buildings and some cottages and villas, are planned for young families (ages 25-45) with incomes of $800-1,200 per month. The prices will range from $38,000-75,000. Masri and Abid are planning to build employment centers in the new city, primarily in advanced industries. Plans include a hospital, shopping centers, theaters, gas stations and a wide range of services. There will also be parks and playgrounds. Special attention will be given to environmental issues, by using solar energy in order to reduce air pollution. They envision the first 21st-century style city between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

The urban-kibbutz balance

Here is a story that provides a different perspective on Yossi Beilin's decision to hand over the flickering torch of Meretz to kibbutznik Haim Oron. The story was published November 1 in Daf Yarok, the journal of the kibbutz movement: "One of the major blows that delayed completion of the purchase of Tnuva by Apax was resolved last week when the Tax Authority granted its approval," the journal reported.

"According to parties involved in the deal, Tnuva CEO Arik Reichman complimented MK Haim (Jumas) Oron of Meretz for spurring the wheels of the treasury and getting the permit, which had been previously delayed, issued." Reichman said "Jumas helped move along things that had been stuck." He noted that "everything was acceptable to the treasury and I appreciate Jumas' contribution in tying up the loose ends and in amending the regulation that was the basis of the deal."

The journal reporter Nahman Gilboa reported that Oron, a member of Kibbutz Lahav (part of the Kibbutz Ha'artzi movement), is not interested in elaborating on exactly what had to be done to speed up the approval. Oron agreed to tell Daf Yarok that his involvement was "in the broader context of granting an income tax exemption for deals in the agricultural sector."

The report explained the exemption was issued as part of a regulation passed in the Knesset by MK Oron, whereby the funds obtained from realizing holdings in corporations of agricultural communities will be tax exempt, if they are allocated for debt repayment. And in summary: "Moving up the debt repayment as part of the return from the Tnuva deal can free up new funds for growth in kibbutzim and moshavim and for organizing pensions for members."

What chance does a city candidate have with a kibbutznik who read this joyful report, when he is running against a man who worries about "freeing up new funds for growth in kibbutzim and moshavim and for organizing pensions for members"? For Beilin, it is certainly reminiscent of the confession he heard from one veteran Meretz activist. It was one of the first lessons that the new inductee from the Labor party learned upon joining his new party.

"When I have to choose between a genius city boy and an idiot kibbutznik," confessed the kibbutznik, a Hashomer Hatza'ir man, "I have no deliberation: My idiot always comes first." It would be fair to assume that not all 5,000 Hakibbutz Ha'artzi members identify with this order of preferences and values. But when the choice is between worthy candidates "or our own," the hand automatically reaches for the "Haim Oron" and "Avshalom Vilan" ballot. That's how the left-wing Zionist party was largely transformed into a sectarian party where two of its five members are clear-cut representatives of the kibbutz lobby and its enterprises, lands and products. Even the Labor party, without the support of the leaders of the kibbutz establishment, and the Arab vote contractors, will find it hard, if not impossible, to win.

Among the 19 Labor MKs, the Takam movement has one representative (Orit Noked) and one Arab (Raleb Majadele). The Meretz Knesset faction has five members. Two are members of the Kibbutz Ha'artzi movement. The number of constituents with the right to vote in this sector indicates that they "are equal" to less than half a mandate. For Arab voters, which gave Meretz more or less the same number of votes, there is no representative.

The number of kibbutz members among Meretz's registered members (around 5,000 out of 14,000) explains how this small and disciplined group holds most of the party's key positions from secretary general of Meretz to representative in the Jewish Agency administration and in the management of the Jewish National Fund. They could have captured the leadership, but it is more comfortable for them to operate from inside the pool without feedback from urban voters than it would be from the diving board, as the ultra-Orthodox parties do.

A survey conducted early this month by Mina Tzemach of the Dahaf Institute indicates that for every Israeli who plans to vote for Oron among the Meretz faction members more than three would vote for Beilin. But in internal polls among Meretz members, the balance of power did not bode well for the Beilin-Oron duo. Almost as a default option, they decided to reverse the order. Unwillingly, the kibbutzim came out of the pool and ascended to the diving board. To their detriment, they will be a lot more exposed there.