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STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
THE NEW PALESTINIAN CITY
THE $1.4 BILLION BET ON A NEW PALESTINIAN FUTURE
The Washington Post, By William Booth • Photos by Linda Davidson, May 25, 2017
(EDITORS NOTE: This excellent article makes four points
1. 2.and 3. are due to Israel’s need for self defence in keeping suicide bombers out of Israel
4. Hospital costs are incurred by Israeli and foreign citizens who do not pay regular fees to Israeli health societies. Where appropriate Palestinian costs are charged to the Palestinian authority)
Occupied: Year 50
Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began five decades ago, when Israel defeated three Arab armies. Today, millions of Palestinians still face concrete walls, checkpoints and other Israeli controls. What does it feel like to be “occupied” in 2017? The lives of three people – a construction worker, a cancer patient and a tycoon – offer some answers.
Go to the The Washington Post, to see the 3D images below in 3D)
RAWABI, West Bank — In the newest city in the wannabe state of Palestine, the developer Bashar Masri is putting the finishing touches on his mall. Not just any mall. “A shopping experience,” as luxe as any in Israel, with aspirational sneakers, designer handbags, all the international brands never available here before.
Upmarket consumer options might be ho-hum news in most of the world, but this isn’t any other place.
This is the occupied West Bank, a hornet’s nest of a home to 2.6 million Palestinians and brigades of Israeli soldiers and 400,000 Jewish settlers who have come to claim the land they say was awarded to them by history and God.
Rawabi is the first planned city in the West Bank built by Palestinians for Palestinians, a $1.4 billion metropolis constructed over the last nine years from bare rock.
The city is the most ambitious project in the Palestinian territories and today is the largest private-sector employer here.
Masri is billing his city on a hill as a revolutionary act, a raised fist with a wallet.
“We will live like normal people,” he said, “until the situation is normal.”
As the Israeli occupation of the West Bank turns 50 years old in June, Israel will celebrate the taking of Jerusalem in its near-miraculous Six-Day War against Arab armies led by Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
On the other side of 26-foot-tall concrete walls that surround Jerusalem, Palestinians will point to an occupation that now appears to be never-ending, with its levers of control ever present: the separation barriers, permit regimes, crowded checkpoints.
If Palestinians cannot get permission to spend their money in Israeli malls, Masri says, let them shop in Rawabi. That is how you build a state.
“And why not?” he said. “We’ve earned it.”
Rawabi is the counternarrative in the forever conflict in which Palestinians are often portrayed as terrorist or victim, living in refugee camps or dusty villages out of biblical times.
The Palestinians Masri has in mind? All the upwardly mobile dentists, Web designers and middle managers who don’t make the news.
The half-built city of Rawabi has been a media darling for years, a tour-bus destination for visiting Norwegian diplomats, Harvard Business School scholars, Arab venture capitalists, adventuresome American Jews, and most recently Coldplay — because nothing like this has been tried here before.
This is what a new Palestinian state could look like, says Masri, a metropolis with a 15,000-seat Roman-style amphitheater, hosting Broadway shows like “Cats,” with Palestinian techies typing code for Israeli companies and children learning crisp diction in the British-style Rawabi English Academy.
Masri believes that if he offers his people Zumba classes, they will come.
Or it could all fall apart.
Famous entertainers adorn the upper walls of a 15,000-seat,
open-air amphitheater in Rawabi.
Inventory is arriving at Nine West and other retail stores scheduled
to open in the new Palestinian city.
Shopping for a new normal
The grand opening of Rawabi’s “Q Center” — named after the city’s Qatari backers — is just days away at the end of May, and the open-air promenade was swarming with Palestinian construction crews. Sparks were flying in the night air. Workers going round the clock, hanging signs, stocking shelves. Masri was a blur of motion, barking at the engineers trailing behind with clipboards and walkie-talkies.
Details, people! Masri was jabbing his finger left and right. Look, paver stones are loose. Sconce lights all wrong. And those geraniums look dead. Fix it. Move it. Finish it.
If his mall succeeds, Masri told me, if his business center succeeds, there is commerce, there are jobs and people.
Masri also said Rawabi could collapse if the Israeli military government, which runs most of the West Bank, decides to turn off the water or electricity, again. The Israelis could shut down the access roads, too. They’ve done it before.
Masri opened his laptop to show me a photo sent by a resident the day before. There were four Israeli soldiers and a jeep pulled across Rawabi’s main entrance road, a “flying checkpoint,” temporary but ominous to Palestinians, who are forced to show IDs, open their trunks and explain themselves — just to get home.
The Israel Defense Forces say they routinely erect such checkpoints to search for weapons, suspects and contraband.
“Two, three, four weeks of this? One jeep with Israeli teenagers in uniform? That will kill us,” Masri said.
Rawabi could also fail if Palestinians decide they don’t want what Masri is selling.
The Palestinian multimillionaire and his Qatari partners are doing all this to make money, for sure.
But they also say let the women of Rawabi jog, with or without veils or fear of social censure. And give the residents speed bumps, yoga classes and the first and only homeowner’s association in the West Bank.
Masri said the often invisible Palestinian middle class deserves the $125,000, three-bedroom apartments in Rawabi, for sale now at 4.95 percent mortgage rates, next to a mall stocked with real Wrangler Advanced Comfort Relaxed Fit Jeans, not the counterfeits you find in the bazaars of Ramallah.
If Rawabi thrives? Masri envisions many more Rawabis.
Successive American presidents struggled and failed to make a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon with the global brand who became president, has said he wants to try again, to strike “the toughest deal in the world.”
Maybe Trump should hear the struggles of Bashar Masri. Because at its core, the Israel-Palestine conflict is nothing if not a real estate story.
The former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, said if Trump wants to see one piece of the puzzle, he should come to Rawabi.
The two developers would have something to talk about.
‘Maybe too quiet?’
As the Israeli occupation begins its sixth decade, what does it feel like, not just to the Palestinian laborer negotiating with an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint — but a Palestinian master of the universe like Masri, who commutes in private jets and hosted the former U.N. secretary general for lunch at Rawabi?
“I hate the occupation,” Masri said. “It’s evil.”
When he was a teenager, Masri shot the finger at Israeli soldiers. Now he is one of the richest men in the Palestinian territories.
When he was young, he went to the United States, got his degree in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, married an American, had two daughters, and was awarded U.S. citizenship.
“I love America,” Masri said.
But he came home to the West Bank in the 1990s.
“I dreamed there would be a Palestinian state,” he said.
He thought everyone would come home to build it.
“But honestly there weren’t many,” he said.
The master plan for Rawabi calls for 8,000 homes and a population of 40,000 on the hilltop, surrounded by areas that today are under partial or complete control — civil or security — of the Israeli military.
If completed, Rawabi will be bigger than all but a handful of the 126 Jewish settlements in the West Bank — communities that are branded illegal by most of the world, although Israel disputes this.
Masri says his apartments are selling briskly and that 3,000 people live in Rawabi today.
But during my visits, his city felt empty to me — hopeful but lonesome.
Only three of the neighborhoods are finished, and construction is ongoing. In the evenings I walked around the terraced blocks and counted cars in parking lots and lights on in the living rooms. There weren’t many.
I met Jihad Kmail and his wife, Israa Sarsour, a young married couple, both architects, with a toddler. They moved here from Ramallah, where prices for new apartments are even higher.
They said they liked the modernity, safety and order of Rawabi. They believe in their investment.
“But we don’t know whether Rawabi will succeed or not,” Sarsour said.
They were hopeful but nervous. “It’s nice. But maybe too quiet?”
In the days before Masri’s mall opens, the whole project feels as tentative as the Palestinian dream for a state.
“The occupation is not designed to make Palestinians successful,” Masri said.
He was driving his jeep toward the mall, mumbling about why the mosque was taking so long.
Risk is written all over the project. It’s not just the Israelis.
The Palestinians could launch another uprising. Palestinian youth, goosed by incitement on Facebook, personal trauma, mental illness, dreams of paradise or nationalist fervor, could start stabbing and ramming their family cars into Jews again — or Hamas cells could kidnap Israeli teens, as they did in the summer of 2014, which sparked the last of three Gaza wars.
Violence almost derailed Rawabi before.
It is tough to market high-end apartments to Palestinians during Gaza wars or prisoner hunger strikes or “days of rage” declared by the Palestinian Authority.
It is also possible that the Palestinians will not embrace Masri’s vision of a Western-style middle-class utopia.
Maybe they really don’t want equestrian centers or Hugo Boss or a wine cave.
(Highlight Films for The Washington Post)
The seeds of ambition
Masri works out of a small mobile home at the edge of the construction site. Outside the window, he can watch the minaret of Rawabi’s new mosque rise toward the heavens.
He has also set aside land for a Christian church.
Masri wants Rawabi to be 10 percent Palestinian Christian.
He has a desk barely big enough to hold a laptop. For lunch, he picked at a plate of lettuce leaves and asked, “Where do you want me to begin?”
He was born and raised in nearby Nablus, an ancient city with crumbling palaces, a famous bazaar and a reputation for resistance. His father was a successful physician.
“A well-off family,” Masri said.
When he was a teenager in the 1970s, Masri participated in violent demonstrations against the Israelis. He was a youth organizer, burnished by arrest and jail by age 15.
“The Israeli soldiers beat the crap out of me,” he said.
In prison, the old men in the Palestine Liberation Organization taught him Marx and Lenin.
“I was a revolutionary,” he said. “I thought capitalism was the ultimate evil.”
He sees the irony, of course. This is why he is telling the anecdote.
As a young man, he also served as an aide to Yasser Arafat. When Arafat’s plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base in 2000, a visit that would end with the collapse of the Camp David peace talks, Masri said he was the Palestinian who opened the jet’s door.
“We’ve earned it,” Palestinian developer Bashar Masri says of the ambitious city,
which includes a large amphitheater. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Hunt for land and cash
“Who else is crazy enough to build a city?”
Masri is pedaling his exercise bicycle and holding forth.
Masri said he made a fortune building low-income housing in Morocco and made serious cash with projects in Libya, Egypt and Jordan.
He found enough land for his city near the Palestinian de facto capital in Ramallah, but Masri said a sympathetic Israeli military official told him it would never be approved, ever, because it was too close to Ofra, one of the West Bank’s first Jewish settlements, whose members have deep connections to the Israeli establishment.
“So okay, I thought, let’s go pick on a settlement more my own size,” Masri said.
An old friend showed Masri the hilltop that would become Rawabi. “I fell in love,” he said, with its panorama across a pastoral landscape of terraced valleys, dotted by Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements and, far off a blue smudge, the Mediterranean Sea.
Not exactly waterfront, but a view he could sell.
There were thousands of owners of the land, heirs of plots dating from the Ottoman era, subdivided over generations, many living abroad in the Palestinian diaspora.
This is the only part of his narrative where Masri expresses remorse. He and the Palestinian Authority employed eminent domain for some properties, allowing them to seize land and pay for it.
There’s still bad blood in the surrounding Palestinian villages.
Masri also needed money, too. A lot.
He went on the road, taking 73 meetings before he struck gold with the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company. It put up two-thirds of the money. “It was the luckiest day of my career,” Masri said.
With land and money, Masri needed a road to the site to do the excavation work that would take six years. The road to Rawabi goes through Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where the Israeli military has complete control — not just security but building permits.
It took four years to get permission from the Israelis to pave the road. Today it is barely wide enough for two cars to pass, a country lane through a vineyard.
Getting water was harder. The Israelis refused to provide Rawabi with water because the Palestinian Authority refused to participate in a Joint Water Committee, which approved water for Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements.
Masri said Rawabi was about to collect $120 million for apartments that were sold, but 452 of the 639 buyers canceled their deals when Israel balked on water.
Solving the water problem took 18 months and was raised in the White House, according to Masri, not once, but twice in meetings between President Barack Obama and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We’re famous,” Masri said. “But not the way we want to be.”
One of Rawabi’s engineers is Shadia Jaradat, 29, and on a recent afternoon, she showed her top-floor apartment off to a visiting Harvard professor and his kids.
“We deserve this lifestyle,” she told me. “We don’t need everyone to love it, but don’t deny it to others who want it.”
Across the street, the construction crews were hammering out the finishing touches on the mall with 28 stores and dozens of international brands, with cinemas, nightclubs and cafes to come.
“I always believe we will make it,” Jaradat said.
“If I don’t believe, even for a minute, I will lose all my energy,” she said. “So I believe.
A cement maker works near a store that will sell goods from
Lacoste, a high-end clothing brand. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Is this privately financed city project in the heart of occupied West Bank a momentous trailblazer, or a colossal folly?
The Guardian Harriet Sherwood 24 May 2016
When finished, Rawabi will have space for 25,000 people.
Photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
In a hi-vis jacket and jeans, Shadia Jaradat pauses on a tour of Rawabi, a new city rising out of a West Bank hill, to point up at the top floor of an apartment block. “That one is mine,” she says with visible pride, before continuing her exposition of Rawabi’s considerable merits.
This privately financed city project in the heart of occupied West Bank symbolises both a possible future for the beleaguered Palestinian people and a microcosm of the obstacles they face.
That it has got this far in a place under military rule for almost half a century, and in the teeth of obstruction, controversy and criticism, is a testament to the vision of its founder and driving force, Basher al-Masri.
Civil engineer Jaradat is one of a team of young women professionals helping to build Rawabi. She has also made this $1.2bn (£825m) paean to contemporary urban planning her home, countering a long tradition which dictates that Palestinian women stay with their parents until they marry, after which they move in with their in-laws.
Civil engineer Shadia Jaradat in Rawabi. Photograph:
Harriet Sherwood for the Guardian
Jaradat: young, female, educated, professional, independent. Rawabi: new, modern, clean, high spec and hi-tech. Both represent a break with the past, but their potential is mired in the cyclical violence and political obduracy characteristic of this part of the world.
Our tour of Rawabi – Arabic for “hills” – takes us through the first two city neighbourhoods to be completed since construction began in 2012. Seven hundred apartments have been sold, with the first residents moving in last autumn. Eventually, Rawabi will have a population of 25,000 in the core high-rise city, which could rise to 40,000 with future expansion.
The city is an urban planner’s dream, and the antithesis of the noisy, rubbish-strewn chaos of most Palestinian towns. The apartments have spectacular views over the biblical landscape of the West Bank. Birds of prey soar through the golden evening light. From the highest spots, it is possible to see the Mediterranean glinting beyond the Tel Aviv skyline, 25 miles away.
Residential blocks are connected by landscaped walkways, communal gardens and squares, with vehicles restricted to outer roads and underground car parks. Power and telecommunications are delivered by underground fibre-optic cables. Children’s play areas, outdoor gym equipment and benches are scattered through each neighbourhood.
The apartments are finished to a high specification, with modern kitchens, integral appliances, tiled floors, recessed lighting and communal stores to keep garbage out of sight. Heating and air conditioning is delivered from a central source. Each flat has a balcony or terrace; there are 100 variations of design.
Rawabi’s 12,000-seater amphitheatre.
Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The smallest two-bedroom apartments sell for about $65,000. A four-bedroom apartment could cost up to $150,000. A few top-of-the-range penthouse units have higher prices, but in general they are about 25% cheaper than comparable properties in nearby Ramallah, the overcrowded – and hence overpriced – economic and political hub of the West Bank.
Rawabi’s commercial centre has retail spaces, cafes and restaurants awaiting occupancy. “We’re trying to convince international brands, like Mango and Zara, to open here,” says Jaradat, noting that, as yet, there are no global chains in the West Bank. The blueprint includes copious office space, a creche, a seven-screen cinema, a convention centre and a hotel.
Rawabi sends a message to the international community.
We are not what they are led to believe, a bunch of terrorists
Several mosques and a church will provide worship space for the population. An industrial zone is situated on the city’s outskirts. One school is built, and another is planned. In a slick marketing centre, potential buyers can inspect scale models of the project, view a 3D promotional movie and consult representatives of Arab banks on finance options.
And then there is Rawabi’s jewel: a vast, stunning 12,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre built into the hillside. Here, it is hoped, international artists will perform to audiences attracted to Rawabi from all over the West Bank and beyond.
A soccer stadium, water park, all-terrain recreation vehicles, an overhead zipline – all add up to an ambitious plan to make Rawabi a desirable place to live and a popular destination to visit.
But – especially here – not everything goes according to plan.
Palestinian-American developer Bashar al-Masri.
Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Since Bashar al-Masri embarked on the Rawabi project in 2007, it has consumed every waking moment. “I have a lot more grey hair. I don’t think I’ve taken a single day of vacation. Maybe one. One single day. I never turn my mobile off. There have been many happy moments, but also many frustrating moments. It has not been an easy journey.”
The Palestinian-American businessman talks of his new city with passion. “This project sends a clear message. Despite all the obstacles the [Israeli] occupation puts in our way, we are determined to improve our lives and have our own state.
“This is a mega-project, designed first for Palestinians. People stand on the top of the hill here and say: ‘Wow! This is for us?’ They see other places – in Dubai, Israel, the UK, America – on the internet, and now they see it in our own land, built by our own engineers and labourers. It brings national pride – yes we can, yes we can make a difference, despite all the misery.
“And Rawabi also sends a message to the international community. We are not what they are led to believe, a bunch of terrorists. We are ready to build our state. Here is the proof.”
In 2012, ground was broken. By the middle of 2013, 600 apartments had been sold off-plan and another 8,000 people had registered as potential buyers. A year later, the first properties were finished and phase two was well under construction.
But by early 2015, Rawabi was a ghost town and Masri was contemplating bankruptcy.
A finalised neighbourhood in the new Palestinian city of Rawabi.
Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The issue that drove him and his mega-project to the edge of disaster was water. Masri spent two years trying to secure a dependable and adequate supply. Without it, Rawabi was dead.
Israel took control of West Bank water resources almost 50 years ago, when its occupation of Palestinian territories began. Under the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, a Joint Water Committee (JWC) between Israel and the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA) was set up. The PA allocates water supply within the West Bank, but the amount of water supplied is determined by Israel.
Any water deal for Rawabi needed to be agreed by the JWC. But the PA was mostly refusing to deal with the body in protest at the vastly favourable supply of water to Israeli settlements compared to Palestinian towns.
Rawabi was dry. “It was a super-critical two years,” says Masri. “We were ready to deliver apartments, and we needed $100m from buyers waiting to move in. But we couldn’t move forward.” Construction slowed and hundreds of buyers pulled out. “I really thought we would go bankrupt.”
In desperation, Masri appealed to his friends in international business and politics to intervene. One who advocated on behalf of Rawabi was former British prime minister Tony Blair, who would resign as Middle East envoy a few months later. “Blair was a supporter of Rawabi. He’s been here several times, he’s helped clear [political] obstacles,” says Masri.
Tony Blair plants an olive tree at Rawabi in June 2010.
Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images
The water deal came through in March 2015. “We were allocated a quota of 300 cubic metres a day. Now, we’re already at the top of the quota, and we need more. But all Palestinian cities have water problems, all are asking for more water,” says Masri.
Water was not the only problem. Rawabi is situated in Area A, the 18% of the West Bank that is under Palestinian control. But access to the city lies through Area C, the 60% that is under full Israeli control. Masri had to negotiate for permission to build a road on which trucks could deliver construction materials and cars and buses carry Rawabi workers – and, eventually, give Rawabi residents access to the rest of the West Bank.
“It was discussed at the White House, with [UN secretary-general] Ban Ki-moon, with everyone. Finally we started digging, putting facts on the ground with this road. Eventually, in 2012, with a lot of international pressure, they gave us a temporary permit for the road, But every year it has to be renewed, or they could close the road,” says Masri.
“We want to make the road permanent, we want to widen it and extend it. We’ve been back and forth for a long time. But I’m hopeful it will be approved in the near future.”
An architect model of Rawabi.
Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images
The delays took their toll. “Before, for every unit I had 10 possible buyers. It became hard to find any.” The project is now three years behind schedule and has a funding shortfall of at least $150m, says Masri.
But the setbacks and difficulties go beyond the road and water delays.
“To my knowledge, not another city in the world has been financed completely privately – every single thing from A-Z: sewage, water, schools, telecoms, electricity, roads, religious places. Everything is paid for by us, and we’re not happy with that,” says Masri.
In 2008, Masri signed a private-public partnership agreement with the PA, under which the latter would fund the city’s basic infrastructure to the tune of about $140m. “I’ve had nothing since then. The PA’s priorities should be not just politics and security but also the economy. I understand they are financially broke but they could have delivered more than moral support.”
The PA does not even provide a police presence in the embryonic city. “They agreed to open a police station five months ago, but they need Israeli permission. Nothing has happened. We wait. Until then, I am the police chief of this city.”
At the very least, he says, the PA could have directed international donors to Rawabi. The project was announced just before a conference in Paris in December 2007, at which billions of dollars in aid was pledged to boost the Palestinian economy and state-building projects.
“I thought they’d be all over us,” says Masri. “I’m worried that the donor community remains focused on a welfare society in Palestine. But we need to generate long-lasting jobs rather than wait on handouts every month. We don’t want to rely on philanthropy.”
Immunity to occupation
Masri, 55, was born and raised in Nablus, a major commercial centre of the West Bank and a city which reputedly produced more suicide bombers than any other during the violent years of the second intifada, or uprising. He is a member of one of Palestine’s best-known and wealthiest families; his uncle Munib al-Masri is a prominent businessman and philanthropist, sometimes called the Godfather of Palestine.
After studying and working abroad, mainly in the US, Bashar al-Masri returned to the West Bank in the mid-90s at a time when hopes for a lasting settlement to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict were high following the signing of the Oslo Accords.
I want to convince Google and Microsoft to create jobs here.
We could be a centre of outsourcing. Why not?
But Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem continued, Israeli settlements within the Palestinian territories multiplied, and the prospects of a Palestinian state receded. Masri launched a newspaper and built a successful business – and thought hard about how to breathe life into the dying Palestinian economy. Slowly his dream of a new city, a new beginning, began to take shape.
He drew on the expertise of international planners and architects to flesh out his vision, and secured funding from Qatar to augment his own massive investment. He bought the hilltop site as a deliberate riposte to Israeli settlers who sought out commanding positions for their burgeoning colonies (Palestinian towns and villages are usually found on valley slopes).
Key to Masri’s dream was a sustainable city, attracting investment and jobs to the West Bank. His ambition was to lure hi-tech and service industries to the empty office spaces above Rawabi’s shopping mall, where they could take advantage of a relatively low-cost but highly educated and tech-minded young workforce.
A display living room in an apartment in Rawabi.
Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The advantage of telecommunications, he says, is its “immunity to occupation”. It does not need to overcome the hurdles of checkpoints and closures, import and export bans, and the vagaries of the Israeli civil and military authorities which control much of the West Bank. “I want to convince Google and Microsoft to create jobs here. We could be a centre of outsourcing. Why not? That would be our Marshall Plan.”
Rawabi has many critics. Some Palestinians have belittled it as a vanity project for Masri. Some say the cost of housing is way beyond the reach of most Palestinians, for whom a long-term mortgage is impossible. Some worry that the concept of small units for nuclear families or solo dwellers challenges traditional social norms whereby extended families live grouped together, providing mutual care for the old and the young.
And some accuse Masri of cosying up to Israel in order to get his project off the ground. These critics say Rawabi risks “normalising” the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by embarking on such a major venture ahead of securing a Palestinian state. Some say his dealings with the Israeli authorities amount to “whitewashing” or “collaboration”.
It is true that Masri has negotiated with Israel over the water supply and the road, and that much of the construction materials used to build Rawabi came from Israeli suppliers.
But he shrugs off the criticism. “They’re entitled to to their opinion. A lot of things they accuse me of are not true. I don’t see dealing with Israeli companies as wrong – it’s almost impossible not to deal with Israel. 99.9% of Palestinian homes are built with Israeli cement. You got to any Palestinian shop, and people are buying Israeli ice cream.”
“Some people say Rawabi sugarcoats the occupation. I disagree. Rawabi is being built despite the occupation. We expose the occupation by our battle for basic things like water and a road.”
Rawabi resident Mai Alzarou and her nine-month old daughter.
Photograph: Harriet Sherwood for the Guardian
He describes some of his critics as “cappuccino leftists”. “Who decides what to boycott and what not to boycott? It’s okay to study at Tel Aviv university but not to buy Israeli cement?” (This is a dig at Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, who was a student at the institution.)
But, Masri concedes, anti-Israel slogans have resonance at a time “when Palestinians are being killed in cold blood”. Between October 2015 and March this year, 30 Israelis and two Americans died in a wave of stabbings, shootings and car-rammings by Palestinians. Over the same period, more than 200 Palestinians were killed, the majority while allegedly carrying out attacks.
The violence has had an impact on Rawabi, says Masri. “You can’t market nice new homes in a climate when people are being killed, when there are closures and demolitions [of Palestinian homes by security forces].”
The patterns of Palestinian society are changing
It has also been a setback for Masri’s ambitions to attract tech companies to Rawabi. Despite his overtures, no international businesses have committed to locating in the city. “We’re struggling,” he admits.
“We did Rawabi the awkward way – we built a city, then invited [businesses] to come. The norm is to first create jobs, then build a city around them.”
But, typically for Masri, he is undeterred. “I’m confident we’ll be able to do it. All over the world we have friends who are mesmerised by Rawabi. For the first time they see, hear, read, watch the Palestinian people doing something positive. The international community is on our side, not against us.”
In the meantime, the development of Rawabi itself has created thousands of jobs – and, unusually, almost half its workforce is female. This was deliberate. “Women are equally qualified and super-hardworking. We wanted to empower women in the workplace.”
Masri is the father of two daughters in their early 20s. “I see how women can be at a disadvantage, and when the economy is bad, women get the worst part of it. Here, we are trying to build a civilisation, and that requires equality.”
More pragmatically, he adds: “And young people buying a home here usually need two salaries.”
The story of cities, part 1: how Alexandria laid foundations for the modern world
Mai Alzarou and her family are typical of Rawabi residents. Alzarou, 25, an English teacher, her salesman husband and nine-month-old daughter moved to the city from Bethlehem last autumn. Their three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment was on sale for $120,000, but the Alzarous took advantage of a “rent-to-buy” scheme. They are paying $500 a month in rent for two-and-a-half years, and then will pay off the balance with a combination of savings and mortgage.
“In Palestine we usually live in extended families. But not all young people think this is the best way. We wanted our own apartment with new neighbours,” she said.
According to Jaradat, typical buyers are in their 30s with young families, with both husband and wife working outside the home in the private sector, well-educated and looking for a new lifestyle among other young families. Among the first 700 families, 10% are Christian compared to 3% in the overall population.
“The patterns of Palestinian society are changing,” she says. “When I bought my apartment, my family didn’t understand. It’s not part of our culture, but I’m glad we’re changing that.”
How far and how deep the changes go is not known. Is Rawabi a momentous trailblazer or a colossal folly? Masri has no doubt, but others are watching cautiously.
“My vision is not just Rawabi,” he says. “This is not about real estate, this is about change at the grassroots, it’s about empowerment. Rawabi is a pilot project that will start a domino effect. The only question is when.”
Bashar Masri, the billionaire Palestinian developer behind Rawabi, says the city that opened in August defies the occupation
Times of Israel Yardena Schwartz, January 2016
Bashar Masri is the developer behind Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city.
RAWABI, West Bank (JTA) — Bashar Masri is not your typical billionaire real estate developer.
Born in the Palestinian city of Nablus in 1961, as a teenager Masri was apprehended and jailed by Israel eight times for throwing rocks and organizing demonstrations, the first time when he was 14 years old. During the first intifada, he served as a conduit between the uprising’s leadership and the Palestine Liberation Organization, then based in Tunisia. He later grew close with Yasser Arafat. When the late Palestinian leader touched down in Washington for the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Masri says he was the one who opened the airplane door.
Now, after having spent much of his early life resisting the Israeli occupation, Masri stands accused of colluding with it.
Masri is the developer of Rawabi (Arabic for “The Hills”), a high-tech city of gleaming apartment buildings rising from the West Bank hills north of Ramallah. Hailed as a linchpin of the future Palestinian state, the city has drawn visits from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as support from an array of American Jewish groups, including AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League.
But to some in the Palestinian community, the very idea of Rawabi is a betrayal. These critics say building a modern, comfortable Palestinian city serves merely to normalize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — a charge Masri rejects out of hand. If it were not Palestinians building on those hills, he says, it would be Israeli settlers.
“A project like Rawabi that may appear to some as sugarcoating the occupation,” Masri said, “is in reality defying the occupation.”
Rawabi is the largest real estate project in Palestinian history and, according to Masri, the first new Palestinian city in 1,000 years. Situated on 1,600 acres, it is home to a 20,000-seat amphitheater, has created 6,000 jobs in construction and engineering and, Masri estimates, will create another 5,000 in the next 10 years in retail, health and other sectors. Masri says he is in talks with major technology companies in an effort to lure them to open offices in Rawabi.
The first phase of construction alone has cost $1.2 billion, a third of which was funded by Masri’s company, Massar International, and the remainder by the Qatari government. Ultimately, Rawabi will encompass over 6,000 apartments and house approximately 30,000 residents.
Despite those ambitions, however, the project has been beset with delays. Masri waited four years for the Israeli government to provide access to water and approve an access road, which even now remains too narrow to serve the projected population.
The Palestinian Authority has also not stepped up, Masri says, despite initial promises to fund and support the project. The city’s three schools and medical clinic are all privately funded, as is the sewage and water system. Rawabi is the only Palestinian city with its own fiber optic network — also privately funded.
“We believe the Palestinian Authority should have seen the project as a top priority and should have supported it … by building a school, by building a road, building a clinic, building the sewage treatment, building a water tank,” Masri said. “Unfortunately, their contribution so far has been zero when it comes to funding.”
The first phase of Rawabi consists of 1,300 apartments — only 637 are ready, and only 140 of those are occupied. The first “Rawabians” were supposed to move in a year ago, but with the water and road delays, they only moved in this August.
According to Masri, political unrest in recent months led to Israeli checkpoints on area roads, which deterred buyers worried they might have trouble reaching their jobs in nearby cities if they moved in. Such concerns are part of the reason Masri is trying to establish Rawabi as an IT hub and why he has billed it as a place to “live, work and grow” — not as a bedroom community where people live but work elsewhere.
“Sales have slowed down because of the political situation,” said Masri, looking sadly out his window at the construction cranes and workers that are operating six days a week to finish the project. “People are concerned that this is not the right time to make a move, not the right time to borrow such big loans. It’s upsetting for us. Because of the political situation, we could not celebrate the first people moving in.”
What might also be keeping people from buying and moving in is the harsh criticism Rawabi has received from the Palestinian community. In order to get Rawabi off the ground, Masri had to cooperate with Israeli government officials, enlist the help of Israeli advisers and work with Israeli contractors.
That opened Masri to charges he was undermining calls for a boycott of Israel. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee has accused Masri of “normalization with Israel that helps it whitewash its ongoing occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people.” Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior Palestinian official, told Al-Monitor that “all Palestinian factions” should be boycotting Israel, “including Rawabi.”
To Masri, the criticism is absurd.
“They know damn well we don’t have a choice. There is not a single Palestinian home built in Palestine that does not have Israeli products,” he said, incredulously. “Eighty-five percent of the cement in all of Palestine — in all of the West Bank and Gaza — is coming from Israel. In the West Bank, all of our electricity is from Israel.”
Where Masri draws the line is cooperating with settlements. Israeli companies working to develop Rawabi signed a contract vowing not to use settlement products, which has angered right-wing Israeli lawmakers.
Basim Dodin, 55, who with his wife, Asma, was among the first buyers to move to Rawabi, has heard the criticism as well. Friends have asked why he was going to live in an Israeli town and charged that the development is an Israeli government project, but Dodin was undeterred.
“Our economy is strongly linked to the Israeli economy,” Dodin said. “So what’s wrong if we have cooperation with Israeli companies in building this city and benefit from the Israeli experience and technology in building such a city?”
Despite the obstacles and criticism, Masri considers his project a huge success.
“I’m very hopeful of Rawabi, just like I’m hopeful of the Palestinian state,” Masri said. “It will happen; it’s just a matter of time. We can speed it up also, and Rawabi is part of the speedup.”
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