When you think of Palestinians living in the West Bank, the images that come to mind aren’t very welcoming. But a new city rising in the area gives a different perspective.
Rawabi is the first planned city being built in the West Bank, north of Jerusalem. About 250 Palestinian families have moved in the area in what is being called “a symbol of their quest for statehood after nearly 50 years of Israeli military occupation.”
If things go as planned over the next five years, there will be homes for 60,000 more.
The idea was conceived by Bashar Masri, born to Palestinian parents and the nephew of Munib al-Masri — the Palestinian billionaire, philanthropist and peace advocate who is known as “the Duke of Nablus” and even “the Godfather.”
Masri’s father is a doctor. He immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1977 and earned a chemical engineering degree from Virginia Tech in 1983. He returned to Palestine in 1995 and with the backing of his wealthy extended family, formed the Massar group of companies.
He is also the managing director of Bayti Real Estate Investment Company, jointly owned by Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company and Massar International.
He presented the idea of an urban center for Palestinians in 2007. Work on the urban project began in 2012 and the first residents started moving in January 2016.
The construction of the city has reached $1.2 billion so far, funding for which has come from the Bayti Real Estate Investment Company.
Once completed, Rawabi will be a city featuring high-rises, shopping centers, an industrial zone, schools, a shopping center, an open air theater, mosques and a church.
However, Rawabi does not cater to low-income buyers. A three-bedroom apartment costs an average of $100,000, but it is approximately 25 percent less than a similar accommodation in the main Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah.
“Here everything is organized. There is a safe playing area for the kids where you don’t feel worried when they go out. The services are central and available around the clock,” said Sanaa, a resident. “That’s the place I dreamed to live in.”
For Fadi Salameh and his family, buying an apartment in Rawabi was also an act of defiance.
“Rawabi is a hilltop and as long as we are living on the hilltops, we are resisting,” Fadi said. “The Israelis have taken most of the hilltops. For us, it’s retrieving what little is left for us.”
Construction in the West Bank is not very common. People hardly get permission to either build or rebuild.
It hasn’t been easy for Masri as well. In times of political turmoil and amid bouts of aggression, Rawabi is neither a win over Israeli occupation nor is it a peace gesture by the Israelis — it is simply a bilateral business deal.
“It’s mostly a relationship between Israeli and Palestinian businesses,” said Masri. “There is Israeli profiteering in Rawabi.”
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The only way the Palestinians could build the city was by working with the Israelis. Much of the material for Rawabi’s construction comes from Israel, which Masri admits was a matter of necessity. He would have loved to purchase all the materials from Jordan but that would not have worked out in the long run.
“It’s not just Rawabi,” he said. “Every Palestinian in the West Bank buys Israeli products because they have to. All the electricity from the West Bank comes from Israel.”
Masri has been criticized by both sides. Palestinians protest that his approach is "normalizing" Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Israeli settlers protest the project and say they would soon set up settlements nearby.
“Settlers are evil people in general that continue to harass our people; they continue to live on our land illegally, and it’s recognized by almost the whole world as being illegal. We do not deal with illegal bodies or illegal issues,” says Masri.
But he goes on.
Rawabi has a yearly renewable permit to use a narrow road an area under Israeli control. A pipeline, which passes through the same area, brings in 300 cubic meters of water a day — insufficient for the residents as well as the construction that’s underway. Tankers make up the shortage of the water.
“I’m a strong believer that a Palestinian state is in the making and part of the pillars of building a proper state is to have a strong economy and higher standard of living,” Masri said.
“I would love to sit at a café in Rawabi and watch the people going around, enjoying themselves, living in a nice clean environment and being happy,” he mused. “We deserve some relaxation and happiness … we have been dealt a terrible deal, dozens and dozens of years. We deserve better.”
His next challenge is to triple both the width of the 7-meter (22-foot) road and the water supply.