In Palestinian city of the future, few residents and charges of collusion with Israel

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.”

Units range in price from $70,000 to $500,000 — cheaper, Masri says, than nearby Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, which lacks Rawabi’s amenities.

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.”

Basim Dodin, right, and his wife Asma are among the first Palestinian residents of Rawabi. (Yardena Schwartz)Basim Dodin, right, and his wife Asma are among the first Palestinian residents of Rawabi. Photo by Yardena Schwartz/JTA

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.”

Lights on! Planned Palestinian city welcomes first ‘Rawabians’

Hanadi Abu Zahra turns on the tap in her kitchen and is elated to see the water flowing – something most new residents would take for granted even if they had not just moved into a brand new state-of-the-art apartment in a luxury building located in a development that has been the recipient of massive world-wide attention. But whether or not water would be there when the tap was turned on became symbolic of the challenges that had to be overcome in order for Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city, to transform from one man’s vision to the fulfillment of 40,000 aspirations.

In August, Abu Zahra became one of the first Rawabians – residents of the long and anxiously awaited city located about 5.6 miles north of Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative capital, and 15 miles north of Jerusalem.

On a grand entry road you are met by the swaying of the Rawabi, Palestinian and Qatari flags saluting a bold new city of neatly chiseled gold, grey and white stones of varying sizes emerging before your eyes. They are laid meticulously by hundreds of workers who hail from all over — Nablus, Qalqilya, Jenin.  Some workers are hanging from scaffolding placing final touches on the third and fourth neighborhoods being readied to receive their occupants, or preparing phase one of the town center or Abraham’s Mosque, named after the common ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Rawabi is a project of Bayti Investments which was developed through Massar International and Qatar Diyar.

Bashar Al-Masri, president of Massar International, a chemical engineer-turned- builder/real estate mogul, is the man behind the vision. Asked by The Media Line whether the city now receiving its first residents compares favorably with the dream, he answers that, “It’s surprisingly very close. I would say by mid-next year we will be right on because some components of the project lag behind for different reasons, but they’re on track.”

Bashar Al-Masri, President of Massar International and creator of Rawabi. Photo by Felice Friedson/The Media Line

The “track” will, in about six years’ time, run into a formidable city which continues the Rawabi commitment to clean living where rooftop eyesores such as water tanks and satellite dishes are absent and cables, including fiber optics and Internet, are buried beneath the ground. The Middle East’s largest amphitheater (15,000 seats) will be the venue for world-renowned artists while visitors to a business hub will stay in a five-star hotel adjoining a mall adorned with the world’s leading logos. Green, clean and dynamic, Rawabi holds out the promise of a lifestyle Palestinians are familiar with only through Western cinema.

A business center due to open in mid-2016 will include a business incubator established so that Palestinian businesses can create permanent sustainable jobs of which 1,500 are needed to launch the center. Masri is hoping both local and international companies will step in to create those jobs.

The “different reasons” Masri says are causing some components to lag behind are in most cases manifestations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the endless struggle to obtain Israel’s permission to build a road sufficient to support the volume of traffic associated with a city of 6,000 housing units; and the allocation of a water supply appropriate to a city of that size – threatened to scuttle the entire project.

So given the track record of success in resolving issues between Israel and the Palestinians, who then would be willing to chance a commitment to a potentially dry home with no adequate entrance or egress?

According to Masri, as many as 65% of the incoming Rawabians will be moving only a short distance from their current West Bank homes. Typically young professionals with two working spouses, there is also a significant number of Arab Israelis coming from Israel to live in Rawabi – a fact Masri says surprised him.

Rawabi, which means “hills,” sits on 6.3 million square meter municipal boundary, 1 million square meters of which is being built up in the first phase: 639 units ready for immediate occupancy and 500 more ready for move-in early next year. Apartment prices began at about $65,000 — although those are sold out – and peak at about $180,000. The most sought-after units go for between $90,000 and $125,000.

Special insulation material keep homes warm in winter and cool in summer with 30 percent energy savings to each family. Rain water is collected through a harvesting technique, cleaning it for re-usage. Rawabi also claims its own waste water treatment plant which will service the city and adjacent towns.

Bahee, 8, and Layan, 10, bicycle in front of new apartment in Rawabi. Photo by Eloise Bollack/The Media Line

The neighborhoods names are given Canaanite names.  Six thousand housing units across twenty three neighborhoods will be built in all, the first two which are the largest and are completed and ready and servicing about 300 units each. The buildings of the third and fourth neighborhoods are built, but remain just skeletons. The fifth neighborhood, currently an empty excavated lot, will take six months to a year to complete.

Nihad Kamal, an investment manager for Siraj, a private fund, moved his family into the sixth floor of the sixth building – one of the first to take up residency. Asked why, he told The Media Line that, “First of all, it’s a brand new city. There’s a big difference between a new car and used car. This makes a big difference in the future and in infrastructure. There will be no water tanks or satellite dishes on rooftops. Most important to me is being away from city life. We are like a village. A few families have moved in already and I know later on life in Rawabi will be busy.”

The Kamal family had been living in Al-Masyoun, an upscale neighborhood close to the prime minister’s residence. But Kamal beams when he explains that, “My eight-year old daughter now plays with a neighboring ten-year old on their bicycles:  something I would not allow in Ramallah where it was too dangerous to do so.”

Asked if he’s a pioneer, Kamal replied that, “I wish so. I took a calculated risk to come earlier with my family so I’d say I am,” but added, “high risks yield high returns. People coming now and buying at the second phase are paying higher prices. This was one of my calculations.”

Hanadi Abu Zahra, a chemistry teacher; her husband, Bassem, a physician; and their three children Baraa, Bahaa and Beesan ranging in age from 4 to 10, are also moving into the first building. The Abu Zahras learned of Rawabi through social media and bought a 195-square meter apartment. They are excited about this modern and comfortable city, but are still concerned that infrastructure needs to be in place and that the school will be up and running when they take up full-time occupancy in time for the following school year. Construction of Rawabi’s three schools was delayed when the economic situation became critical. At the present time, the city runs buses between Rawabi and schools in Ramallah – almost one hour of daily travel time that Masri says is “not needed.” While the schools are being built, school operators are being vetted so that the educational system is in full gear by next year. Amir Dajani, Deputy Managing director of Rawabi, told The Media Line that plans are underway to use linkages with Harvard, Cornell and Tufts Universities to develop partnership programs and utilize their classrooms in the evening for continuing education and for courses for working mothers via satellite.

Manal Zariq is not only a mother of three who will be moving in next month, she is also Massar International’s general manager and a member of Rawabi’s Municipal Council. Zariq told The Media Line that it’s important for her to “try the systems to make sure that what we’re planning for is working well.” She want to show her fellow Rawabians that “when we build it, it’s even at the standards for the builder to live there.”

By the time the 6,000 units are occupied, the project’s cost will have topped $1.2 billion – a considerable increase above the original projected cost of $875 million when the project began, as much as $200 million of which resulted from what Masri calls “political costs.” Because a small portion of Rawabi protrudes into what was designated “Area C” by the 1993 Oslo Accords (meaning full Israeli administrative and security control), Israel had to sign-off on the issues of building a road and allocating water. Efforts to get those permissions were so intense that the redirection of corporate strength was to the exclusion of other important projects including construction of schools, a medical center…and Masri’s own penthouse.

Currently there are no shops, no small grocers, but a doctor and clinic are available since there have been hundreds of workers on site involved in building Rawabi since the project began in 2008, Dijani, told The Media Line.

Masri is equally proud of what he sees as Rawbi’s payback to the Palestinian society, citing many examples of jobs and businesses that have been spawned by his massive project. He told The Media Line that, the construction industry was “enhanced tremendously.”

Hana and her daughter Tuqa in new apartment. Photo by Eloise Bollack/The Media Line

 “Since we started Rawabi, a minimum of five neighborhood projects, the largest neighborhood project much smaller than Rawabi, but still large, were launched, so this already encourages others to launch big projects.  We know there are others planning a city now and they are waiting and looking at Rawabi to see the success.”

When the project started, 95% of the necessary goods had to be imported. “Today, we probably import 50% of the goods. We worked with the manufacturers.  We worked with the welders to create the steel work.  We worked with the carpenters to do the kitchens.  We were importing all the kitchens.  Now we’re doing all the kitchens locally.  We were importing the doors.  Now we’re doing them locally.  And so on and so forth it is definitely helping the economy much more than Rawabi,” said Masri.

Rawabi has been a study in unintended consequences since the project began. Early on, when it was clear that the small existing road could not support the necessary flow of construction vehicles, Masri answered the challenge by creating a full-scale quarry and stone-making factory on-site. As well, the special mortgage packages the banks created for Rawabi buyers in conjunction with Massar introduced Palestinians to a new option for financing homes.

“We were the first to incorporate female industrial engineers to a construction site in Palestine. One third of our engineers are women,” said Dajani. Illustrating his point, Nour Sadi’s green hard hat sits atop her hijab (Islamic head cover) and her large toothy smile shines through as she talks of the many women engineers involved in the electricity, building and architecture of the new city. Nour is a resident of Jenin and studied in Al Najah University.  

And perhaps least expected was the support that welled-up within Israeli society for the success of the project.  The struggle to get the necessary permissions is legend but strangely helped in no small degree by Israelis themselves.

As the project proceeded, Israelis from the nation’s elite to the rank-and-file became transfixed with Rawabi to the point where popular support from its citizens is credited by Masri with helping to ultimately turn the tide. Some go so far as to point to Rawabi as a microcosm for coexistence, an idea Masri appreciates. But at the end of the day, the city’s founder says, “This is not about the international community. This is about Palestine and the Palestinian people.”

Yet, Masri is candid about nearly losing the project altogether when funding ran out and doesn’t regret that the project will not make money. He tells of the company’s leadership scrambling to raise $100 million from personal and business sources to save Rawabi. Above all, he explained to The Media Line, was the drive to “set a precedent for the other projects. We want others to be encouraged to do Rawabi 2 and Rawabi 3 and Rawabi 4 and Rawabi 5. And guess what? The country needs a minimum of five projects like Rawabi.”

Sitting together on the living room couch in their flat, the Kamal family reflected on their new life in Rawabi. Twenty-year old Tuqa, a student at nearby Birzeit University, appreciates the closeness of the campus to her new home so that her friends and classmates can come visit. Eight-year old Huda says she loves laying down in the garden.

“When you have a busy city that’s organized, it’s much nicer than being in a busy city that’s unorganized,” said Nihad reflecting on the excitement of the move and the inevitable growth of the city. 

Meanwhile, sounds of jack hammers abound and sandy dust looms everywhere; but the water is flowing and the lights are on in Rawabi.

A transformative journey through the West Bank

It took a bus with Palestinian plates, a Palestinian driver and about 60 minutes to begin our transformative journey to the West Bank. Aside from the traffic on the way to the border crossing, our group of 10 Reform rabbis (on a trip sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis) barely knew we had left the outskirts of Jerusalem. As we wound our way to our first destination, we viewed a myriad of brand-new multi-story buildings, showing us that the West Bank’s national bird is the same as Israel’s — the construction crane.

Soon we arrived at ZAMN, a comfortable coffee shop in Ramallah. Again we could barely tell the difference from Israel’s Aroma Café except for the names of a few cheeses and an amazing apple tart that I haven’t seen on Aroma’s menu. We relaxed on comfortable couches as we awaited a visit from senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath. Shaath spoke openly about his views, some of which we agreed with more than others. While he said he doesn’t believe Israel should be a Jewish state, he explained that the Palestinians are focusing on economic growth rather than violence to improve their situation and status in the world.

Then Huda el Jack, a partner in ZAMN, picked up on the theme of economics in the West Bank. El Jack  dispelled my preconceived notion that every woman in the West Bank wears religious garb — as if the same thing happens in Jerusalem. Instead, el Jack was dressed in casual clothes similar to any American businesswoman. She spoke eloquently about the need for economic development in the West Bank, emphasizing that young people are extremely frustrated because they cannot get jobs. El Jack, who has an MBA from Kellogg School of Management, even pointed out that the cooks at her coffee shop make more money than new lawyers.

We then headed to the new city of Rawabi, so eye-openingly modern that visitors can tour the entire town from the information center by viewing a mini-city with videos showing activities ranging from life at home to shopping and eating at restaurants. Again the people and activities looked just like those occurring in Jerusalem or Los Angeles. The actual city, built on a series of hills, has units ranging in price from $65,000 to $125,000. Again I noted my “surprise” as our tour guide entered the bus. She was a casually dressed young woman engineer whose head also was uncovered. Women visitors to the Rawabi information center were dressed in a variety of ways. As I waited for the rest of my group at one point, more of my preconceived notions fell away as I watched the office staff work together. They chatted and joked just like all co-workers. Furthermore, they kindly offered me a refreshing drink.

Eventually, we had to return to Jerusalem. We drove through older areas of the West Bank where the streets were narrow and the stores were small, again not much different from those in older parts of Jerusalem. We passed a square guarded by statues of lions that has been the scene of protests and violence in the past. But now it is calm and a place for pedestrian and car traffic. Only six hours after our journey began we again sailed across the border. But this time our hearts and minds were filled with a transformed perspective of the West Bank and its people. We carried with us new hope for continued understanding and communication, and hopes for shalom.

Israeli lawmakers’ petition calls for boycott

Dozens of Israeli lawmakers have signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli companies that have signed contracts to help build a new Palestinian city.

Sponsored by the Land of Israel Lobby, the petition was signed by 48 lawmakers after being circulated Monday.  Right-wing lawmakers and half of the Kadima Party signed, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The petition comes in response to a contract signed by 20 Israeli companies to help build Rawabi, in the West Bank near Ramallah, in which they agree not to use raw materials, products or services originating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as in eastern Jerusalem or on the Golan Heights, which the Palestinian Authority also defines as settlements.

“Israeli companies have sold their Zionist souls and their national solidarity for a handful of dollars,” the petition reads, according to Israeli news reports. “We call on you, Cabinet ministers, regardless of factions, to refrain from any business dealings with those Israeli companies who signed or will sign on this shameful contract, which is cooperation with Palestinian economic terrorism.”

The Palestinian Authority in 2010 announced a boycott of products and services originating in the settlements, including areas annexed by Israel, and said it will prohibit Palestinians from working in the settlements beginning later in 2011.