Under construction: utopian city for Palestinian yuppies

In these hills north of Ramallah, construction has begun on the city of Rawabi.

By Guus Valk in Rawabi

A Palestinian businessman wants to build a new city on the West Bank. But will Israel allow him to construct a lifeline connecting it to the outside world?

The brochure showed scenes typically used to sell real estate: shiny white apartments, shaded terraces and green parks. Children were pictured in streets devoid of cars, besides residents chatting in the generous shade provided by flowering trees. The backdrop of rolling hills made for an almost Tuscan landscape. The brochure’s tone was jubilant: “Rawabi. The place to live, to work, to grow,” a slogan read.

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Bashar Masri laughed affectionately as he leafed through the booklet that contained a fleeting impression of his yet-to-be- constructed dream. Rawabi is to be the first Palestinian city built in modern history, right in the middle of the West Bank. Last month, construction began on the new city that should one day be home to 40,000 Palestinians.

“Here,” he said, pointing out a street, “you will see young couples, well-employed families and small children. They will all live in spacious houses on clean streets, amid mountain air, and have showers that will never fail to give warm water.”

Masri’s office is located in a luxurious building in a suburb of Ramallah. He came up with the idea for this utopian place three years ago, he said. “I wanted to build a city to meet the needs of young, well-educated Palestinians. Why should they live in old cities where their children can’t even go out onto the streets?”

Time has stood still in the Palestinian Territories. The villages and cities dotting the West Bank, under Israeli occupation since 1967, and the Gaza strip, where Hamas now holds sway, have all been there for centuries. Logistically speaking, cities like Ramallah, Gaza and Hebron are a nightmare. The only new ‘cities’ that are being built in the territories are Jewish settlements. A situation Masri wants to change. “This new city will be a message to the world and to Israel in particular. We Palestinians will be building a city in our own country,” he said.

Palestinian boomtown

But before he does, Masri has a host of problems to overcome. Lack of demand, however, is not one of them. “There are plenty of Palestinians here willing to pay 400 to 700 dollars a month for a house in Rawabi,” he said proudly.

Ramallah, just 10 kilometres north of Jerusalem, is bursting at the seams. The West Bank’s economy has been on the upswing for more than a year. In Ramallah an elite of engineers, economists and civil servants has emerged. There are jobs: dozens of western NGOs and government representatives operate facilities on the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority’s bureaucracy is growing. The refugee camps surrounding Ramallah, on the other hand, remain as squalid as ever.

According to Masri, construction runs in the Palestinian blood. “Thousands of engineers graduate from universities here every year,” he said. “But we export all our expertise to other countries. Everybody leaves for the Gulf states or the West.” Masri said he hoped creating employment opportunities on the West Bank would put an end to this brain drain.

In the next two years, hundreds of engineers will be building Rawabi from scratch. The future site of the city is now only home to trees, hills and a couple of construction trailers. Two excavators could be seen levelling the top of a hill.

Trouble ahead

But even though the promotional leaflet painted a utopian picture of his project, Masri was quick to admit it was well behind schedule. “Stuff happens,” he said. The first problem he ran into was determining property rights. Who owned the land he wanted to build on anyway? “Palestinian families have had the same plots of land for centuries,” Masri said. “But the wars in the past century have left Palestinians adrift.”

Many of Masri’s compatriots have fled to neighbouring Arab states or even further abroad. “It was almost impossible to determine who owned what olive tree. It cost us more than a year to find out. Inadvertently, we brought the tragic story of the Palestinian diaspora back to life.”

Not far from Rawabi lies the Jewish settlement of Ateret. According to international law, Ateret and other Israeli-constructed settlements on the West Bank are illegal. This hasn’t stopped Ateret’s residents and their neighbours from the nearby town of Tzuf from protesting against the construction of Rawabi. The colonists claim that 40,000 Palestinians living on their doorstep pose a grave security risk.

Construction on the West Bank always leads to political upheaval. Since the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, Israel has come to control nearly two thirds of the West Bank. Formally, the accords are no longer valid, but because the definitive peace treaty that was supposed to replace them has failed to materialise, they remain in effect.

A contested road

Under the Byzantine logic of the Oslo Accords, the hills surrounding Rawabi are part of “Area A”. In theory, Palestinians are in charge here. The road connecting the future city to the outside world, however, runs through Area C, where Israel calls the shots.

“Rawabi is completely surrounded by land ruled by Israel,” Masri said. “If the city’s future residents are to get in and out, Israel will have to grant permission for the construction of an access road. A road they will then control.” The businessman was still waiting for Israeli permission to start building a new thoroughfare. Even though the Israeli government has officially stated it does not want to interfere with the Palestinian entrepreneur’s plans, its tardiness is an ominous sign of trouble ahead.

Rawabi’s current access road is only a small winding trail that skirts past villages and canyons. Access to it is tightly controlled by an Israeli army checkpoint. “This road cannot accommodate tens of thousands of people,” Masri said. “We need a new road. Without a road, we won’t have a city. If we don’t get permission to build it, we might as well can our plans.”

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