A businessman has a grand vision to build a high-tech, high-end city in the hills of Palestine—but political barriers are hard to overcomeby Jessica Abrahams / March 12, 2014 / Leave a comment
Perched in the hills of the West Bank, nine kilometres north of the administrative capital Ramallah, a new city is rising from the ground. Currently covered in cranes and rubble, Rawabi (“Hills” in Arabic) will eventually be home to up to 40,000 Palestinians, complete with 23 different neighbourhoods, cinemas, a 15,000-seat amphitheatre for outdoor performances, parks, a shopping district, restaurants, public and private schools, a conference centre, mosques, a church and endless views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the hill.
This is Palestine’s first planned city—the “Milton Keynes of the West Bank,” as I’ve heard it described. During a visit to the site, I’m taken through extensive models, a 3D presentation film featuring smiling and glamorous would-be residents, and explanations of the design’s focus on sustainability and the environment—harvesting rainwater from roofs for irrigation, for example, and reducing CO2 emissions. It’s unexpectedly high-tech and high-end, catering to the Palestinian middle class. “We’re trying to attract international [retail] brands to open their first branches [in the West Bank] here,” one of the project managers tells me. “Palestine doesn’t have these things.” Representatives from chains including Mango and Victoria’s Secrets have apparently visited the site. The 600 apartments that have so far been made available for purchase sold out, and 8,000 people have registered interest to buy the 6,000 flats that will eventually be built.
This huge construction project is now the West Bank’s second biggest private employer, with $1bn of investment behind it put up by Ramallah-based holding company Massar International and Qatari-government owned Qatari Diar. “It’s not about the returns,” Bashar Masri, CEO of Massar International and the driving force behind Rawabi, tells me in the glass offices overlooking the site, a row of Palestinian flags flapping outside the window. “The returns are insignificant and the risks with this project are humongous.” Instead, Masri sees it as a contribution to the building of the Palestinian state.
The Palestinian territories have been struggling with falling rates of GDP growth since 2012 after several years of improvement, dropping from 9 per cent in 2008-11 to 1.9 per cent in the first half of 2013. Employment is heavily dependent on aid and on the public sector, with mostly stagnant investment from the private sector. Various projects have been launched—most recently with the backing of the Middle East Quartet: the UN, EU, US and Russia—to try to boost the private sector and improve the economy, even as the political situation was stalled. But political barriers, such as in trade and transport, have been difficult to overcome.
Masri is a member of a wealthy Palestinian family, and a successful businessman who studied and worked in Egypt and the US before returning to the West Bank. He founded Massar International in 1994, hoping to contribute to private sector development and economic growth. He leans back in the sofa as we talk, dressed in a navy blue suit. “I’m a Palestinian, and I’ve always wanted to do a big impact project for the Palestinian economy,” he tells me. “Palestine, in my opinion, has been state-building since 1988 or ‘89, since the first intifada [Palestinian uprising]. State-building is not just about economics—it’s also about governance, human rights, civil rights—but my area is economics, and I wanted to do something good for the Palestinian people, to create jobs.”
The West Bank is divided into different areas of control defined by the Oslo peace agreements: Area A, controlled by the Palestinian Authority; Area B, under Palestinian civic but Israeli military control; wrapped around them, Area C is under full Israeli control. Approximately 60 per cent of the land, but a much smaller percentage of the Palestinian population, falls into Area C, where it has proven difficult to secure permits from the Israeli authorities for construction or agricultural development. The World Bank estimates that easing these restrictions could add up to 35 per cent to Palestine’s GDP.
Although Rawabi is located in Area A, it is only accessible through Area C, which means negotiating with the Israeli authorities to allow vehicles and construction materials to pass through; this has held the project back by at least two years, Masri says.
The first hurdle was to build a road through Area C in order to access the site—one that could withstand the constant stream of trucks passing through and eventually provide access for the city’s residents. It took Masri five years to secure the permit, and in the end it was a scaled-back version of what he had hoped for. He describes other problems: “There is access water here [a pipeline that supplies a nearby settlement] but it has taken us three years to get permission to use it. This is not their water; it’s both their water and our water,” and now we have to sort out the technical details too, he says. “The occupation has delayed the project by two or three years. I spend 80 per cent of my time dealing with issues related to the occupation,” he says.
A spokesman for the Israeli government told the International Business Times that they support Rawabi as a “positive venture” for the Palestinian economy. He said that permission for the road had been held up because it passed through private land belonging to Palestinians and Israeli settlers, and was eventually redrawn to pass through government-owned land. Permits have proven difficult to acquire from the Israeli authorities on a wider scale, however: almost 95 per cent of requests for construction in Area C are turned down, according to a 2013 World Bank report. Before Rawabi, Masri thought of setting up a car production factory to create jobs in the West Bank, but decided against it “for mainly political reasons,” thinking it would be too difficult to constantly transport the necessary materials through Area C. “There is nothing ideal under military occupation,” he says.
We walk out onto the balcony: beyond the Palestinian flags and a statue of a family holding hands outside Rawabi’s headquarters, we can see the settlement, a spattering of white houses with orange-tiled roofs on the next hilltop over. Residents from the settlement have come across to Rawabi to protest about it, Masri says, and at one point they had to erect a fence to protect their workers. There has been a sharp increase in acts of vandalism committed by settlers against Palestinian communities in recent years.
“Our relationship with the settlers is very clear; we don’t mince our words,” Masri says. “We don’t deal with them, and we don’t want to deal with them… The settlers have an ideology which is that we [the Palestinians] shouldn’t exist.”
But, says Masri, “my views about Israeli settlers have nothing to do with my views on Israel and Israelis,” some of whom have come to visit the construction site out of curiosity, and who will be welcome to come and make use of the facilities once it’s finished, he says, just as he sometimes visits Tel Aviv. Despite the problems experienced with the Israeli authorities, “in terms of the private sector, this has been a fantastic example of Israeli and Palestinian cooperation,” he says (he has faced criticism from some Palestinians over his willingness to work with Israeli firms).
Despite ongoing concerns about infrastructure, roads and sufficient access to water, there is huge enthusiasm for the project from Palestinian house buyers—the first of whom are expected to move in later this year—attracted not only by the high quality of housing and the environment offered by Rawabi, but also by the motivation behind it. As Masri has put it, this is about “establishing facts on the ground.”