New city, new class, new state

August 9, 2013
Sarah Benton

Articles from the Guardian 1, Al Jazeera 2, and CNN. Except for the first illustration all photos from a series in the Al Jazeera piece.

Artist’s impression of the new city of Rawabi being built north of overcrowded Ramallah.

Rawabi rises: new West Bank city symbolises Palestine’s potential

Hi-tech city near Ramallah boasts cinemas, malls and homes for 40,000. But developers and investors face wrangles over water supplies as well as criticism project legitimises Israeli occupation

By Harriet Sherwood, Guardian
August 08, 2013

In the unlikely setting of the West Bank’s biblical landscape, amid stony hills and valleys where sheep and goats bleat under ancient olive trees, an urban planner’s dream is taking shape.

A gleaming hi-tech city, with homes for 40,000 residents, cinemas, shopping malls, schools, landscaped walkways, office blocks, a conference centre, restaurants and cafes, is rising on a crest within sight – on a clear day – of the Tel Aviv skyline.

It looks a little like a new Israeli settlement. But the billion-dollar city of Rawabi is the first planned urban centre to be built for Palestinians. And phase one of the development – 600 near-completed apartments – has just sold out, with around 8,000 potential buyers registered for homes yet to be constructed.

The level of interest reflects social and financial shifts in Palestinian society and symbolises the economic potential of a future state of Palestine. More than half of those who have signed contracts have taken out long-term mortgages and a high proportion are nuclear families in which the mother works outside the home. A small number are single women who plan to live alone, unusual in Palestinian society.

Bashar Masri, the Palestinian-American developer of ‘Rawabi’, visits the building site on February 8, 2012. “Resisting the occupation always takes many forms. In a way, building a city is fighting the occupation. It’s the more progressive way, it’s the professional way, it’s the human way, and it’s the modern way.”  See 2nd item. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

A third of the $1bn (£640m) investment in Rawabi has come from the private Palestinian conglomerate Massar International, and the rest from Qatar. “The risks are extremely high,” said Bashar Masri, the chief executive of Massar and the driving force behind Rawabi. “But I wanted to create an impact project, and I wanted to show we can build a great economy and create jobs.”

The construction phase of the project has created 8,000-10,000 jobs – one in three workers are women – paying, at the bottom end, 30% above the Palestinian minimum wage. But the ambition is for up to 5,000 permanent jobs, mostly in the hi-tech and service industries, to be located in the offices and facilities of the new city when it is complete.

Planning for Rawabi – which means “Hills” – began five years ago, and the ground was broken in 2011. The target market was young middle-class Palestinian families living in chaotic and overcrowded West Bank cities, who would be attracted by modern, streamlined, hi-tech apartments, fabulous views and open spaces, almost every conceivable consumer and leisure facility on the doorstep – and at a price 15-20% lower than Ramallah, a few miles to the south.

Among the city’s first residents will be the Khabi family, who have just made a $15,000 down payment on a three-bedroom apartment. The rest of the $102,000 total is coming from the Khabis’ first mortgage.

“It feels a bit scary,” said Amal, 42, the mother of four children. She and her husband, Adel, 47, will both commute to insurance company jobs in Ramallah. “We are telling our friends to move here too,” she said.

The Khabis fit the profile of the typical Rawabi homebuyer: in their early 40s, husband and wife working in the private sector, with a household income well above the average. Their parents’ generation would have lived with or near members of a large extended family; these couples are opting for a more westernised, and atomised, lifestyle.

Seven percent of Rawabi homebuyers so far are single professional women; 11% are Christian (compared with 2% of the Palestinian population). A small proportion are buying as investment for rental or future resale; 4% of buyers are Palestinian expatriates. “Young, internet-savvy, educated English-speakers,” was how Ramzi Jaber, Rawabi’s commercial manager, described his clientele.

Around half have taken mortgages to finance their new home. The hilltop sales centre, which shows a slick 3D film of imaginary life in Rawabi and allows purchasers to choose from a range of options for bathroom and kitchen finishes, lighting and floor tiles, also houses representatives of Arab banks in glass booths offering long-term loans. “Islamic financing”, in which interest payments – forbidden to Muslims – are replaced by service charges, is available.

Dina and her husband Mamoun also plan to buy a property in the neighbourhood but are worried about possible Israeli interference in the future. “My mother’s frightened of the occupying forces. She doesn’t trust them. They could confiscate the area,” says Mamoun. Photo by Hans Fels/Al Jazeera

Masri was disappointed that more would-be purchasers had not taken mortgages, saying this was the key to “the sense of security” that home-ownership gives to “all communities”. A mortgage education programme was aimed at dispelling apprehension of long-term loans, especially among lower-income families.

Even so, attracting potential homebuyers for the planned 6,000 units has not been difficult; luring international companies to take office and retail space has been more problematic. Some potential takers withdrew following last November’s war in Gaza, according to Masri. “We’ve not been successful yet,” he admitted.

A major deterrent is that Rawabi is situated in territory under Israeli military occupation, a situation that has no clear prospect of changing despite the start of formal peace talks next week. Masri has sought co-operation from the Israeli authorities for the development but it took several years to get permission to build a road to the site that ran for half a kilometre through Area C, the 60% of the West Bank under total Israeli military control. Eventually a temporary permit – which requires annual renewal – was granted last year.

Water has been another huge challenge, both for construction and to service the finished buildings. Israel controls almost all water supplies; 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem consume almost six times as much water as 2.7 million Palestinians.

Construction in Rawabi halts for a day or more each week because of water shortages. “I spend 70% of my time dealing with issues like these,” said Masri.

He is also critical of the Palestinian Authority, which has failed to deliver on a pledge to supply Rawabi’s infrastructure at a cost of $150m. Rawabi’s investors have been forced to finance the provision of power, water, sewage, schools and roads, adding 10-12% to the cost of a home.

“I never envisioned that we would not have this funding with all the donor money that has come to Palestine in recent years,” said Masri. “I’m disappointed that our government has not set this [project] as a priority.”

Masri and the Rawabi project have not escaped criticism. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign has accused the businessman of helping to “whitewash [Israel’s] ongoing occupation, colonisation and apartheid against the Palestinian people” by maintaining links with Israeli industry and by consulting Israeli architects and engineers on Rawabi.

Israeli Jews from the nearby settlement of Ateret, which is illegal under international law and likely to be evacuated under any peace deal, complain that Palestinians are building tens of thousands of new homes when the expansion of their colony is constrained by political considerations. “It feels like unfair treatment of Jewish residents,” said Orit Flint, 35, who described it as a “human rights” issue.

Undeterred by either radical boycotters or Israeli settlers, Masri is optimistic about the future, seeing Rawabi as part of the Palestinian nation-building effort. “I was born and grew up in Nablus at a time when carrying a Palestinian flag on the street was enough to be shot dead [by Israeli soldiers],” he said. “The reason I’m optimistic is that the Palestinian people aren’t going anywhere, and eventually they’ll give us a state.”

From the terrace of the sales centre, he points to a skeletal building and the unfinished penthouse apartment that will eventually become his family’s home. “We are still living under military occupation, but we have made this successful,” he said. Rawabi will not be complete for another seven years, but creating the next modern Palestinian city, Rawabi 2, “will not be as difficult”.

A model of the completed ‘Rawabi’. The planned Palestinian city, with the first stage expected to be finished by the end of 2013, will have six neighbourhoods and a population of 40,000. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The Promised City
A new West Bank eco-town is tempting some Palestinians with promises of a dream city, but it is not without its critics.

By Al Jazeera
May 16, 2013

High on a hill in the West Bank, between Ramallah and Nablus, an extraordinary Palestinian city is being built: Rawabi – meaning hills. It will be the first planned city in the history of Palestine and will become home to some 40,000 Palestinians by the end of 2013, or so it is planned.

This project is the brainchild and passion of Palestinian businessman and multibillionaire Bashar Masri.

Concerned about the shortage of affordable housing for a new generation of middle class Palestinians, Masri came up with the idea for a totally new ‘green’ city with a host of the latest green technologies and a design to mimic the old cities of Jerusalem and Nablus. If Rawabi proves to be successful, he thinks it could be a template for other cities in the West Bank, Gaza and maybe even for the rest of the region.

While Masri faces objections from what he calls “radicals on both sides”, he sees the building of this city as the first steps towards creating “facts on the ground”. In his view, it is one way of building the Palestinian state.

Masri is clearly a man on a mission and, although not everyone supports it, Rawabi is slowly becoming a ‘fact on the ground’.

Filmmaker’s view
By Shuchen Tan

I first met Bashar Masri in his flashy office in Ramallah in December 2011. We had heard about a Palestinian businessman who had taken up the challenge to develop a totally new city in the occupied West Bank, some 40km from Jerusalem. This was a challenge, to say the least, because the plot of land where he wanted to create his dream city ‘Rawabi’ was surrounded by land controlled by the Israeli Authority.

As soon as we sat down for coffee at his office to discuss the possibility of making a film about this daring process, we saw his vibrant personality and immediately knew that our film would not be a reportage style documentary about the building process itself, but would rather be a filmed portrait about a man with a mission.

For weeks we followed Bashar around with our cameras, documenting his daily routine and how he dealt with the countless obstacles that came in his way. In observing him we soon understood that if anyone would be able to face the mammoth challenge of building Rawabi, Bashar would be the one.

His way of responding to the billions of problems he had to face on a daily basis was both pragmatic and business-like but never dogmatic. He would work with Palestinian and Israeli subcontractors because, according to his view, whoever delivered the best work would get the deal. However, Bashar’s approach is not shared by everyone.

Subsequently, he has had to face a lot of criticism from Palestinians and Israelis. “Ironically, I take on the radicals from both sides of the conflict over the same issues, which I am very happy about,” Bashar explains, “That tells me I am doing something right.”

As a filmmaker, I am interested presenting people who have travelled a long and interesting life journey to eventually reach a certain kind of wisdom. In the case of Bashar Masri, I was fascinated by a man with a mission. When I asked him about his past he shared his personal history; he, like most men of his generation, started out as a student activist in the 70’s. Coming from a well–to-do Nablus business family, he joined the youth activist movement as a student leader, where he spent several stints in an Israeli jail.

When Bashar left Palestine to study engineering in Washington DC, he continued his political activism overseas. As a boy Masri had been to many demonstrations throwing stones at the occupier. Now, as man, he continues the Palestinian struggle in his own way.

“As you grow, you understand things better and you learn things. I believe since we have signed a peace agreement, that all our resistance should be a peaceful. Even when the occupier quells us, I believe – although I was a rock thrower myself – we should not respond. We need to become more sophisticated by using smart ways of fighting the occupation. Building a city is, in a way, fighting the occupation. It is the more progressive way, it is the professional way, it is the human way, it is the modern way,” he says.

Some people are still sceptical about the mission that Bashar Masri has embarked upon. In the film, a Palestinian grandmother who has seen it all remarks, “The Israelis will never allow [Rawabi]”. However, I am convinced that as long as we have people like Bashar, there is still hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This is what my film, The Promised City, tries to communicate.

A cultural centre, shown here, is one of the many amenities that will be part of Rawabi. It will also have an amphitheatre, a park and a convention centre. Bashar Masri emphasizes that he has learned from Israel’s mistakes and is modelling the shopping centre on more middle class stores and is pricing homes more modestly for the middle class

New city offers vision of better life in West Bank

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN
July 05, 2013

High in the hills between Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank sits a huge construction site its developers hope will transform the lives of Palestinians for generations to come.

Rawabi is the first planned city of its kind and is not short on ambition.

The renderings for the $1 billion development show many shiny amenities that might seem out of place in an area that has a per capita income of $1,610.

The vision for the project that began construction in January 2010 includes homes for 40,000 residents, a park, a 20,000-seat amphitheater, a convention center and a theater.

Bashar Masri, the Nablus-born, American-educated entrepreneur behind the project, is going well beyond the traditional call of duty for a private developer.

He is negotiating with international companies to ensure there are jobs ready for the city’s inhabitants, and is even building the waste water treatment plants, the water reservoirs and three public schools.

“We were shocked when we realized we’d have to build the schools,” he says. “That is something I didn’t plan for. We appealed to the Palestinian government to come in and assist us with at least that, but unfortunately, they’re broke and have other priorities.”

Masri’s investment is both emotional and financial. For him, Rawabi is not just a housing development but an economic lifeline for the people in the Palestinian territory. The project, which employs 5,000 Palestinians, is already the West Bank’s single biggest private sector employer. When the first tenants move in, ideally in January, he hopes the city will provide a further 1,500 jobs.

“If you created 10 projects like this, you’d create a huge difference in the Palestinian economy,” he says. The project is also his grassroots attempt at nation-building. A strong Palestinian economy, he argues, could one day be the answer to a fully independent Palestine.

According to Mark Regev, the spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the project has support on both sides of the green line.

“It’s not a zero-sum game,” he says. “If the Palestinians have a better economy and a healthier political system, and life is better for Palestine, then life is better for us as well. It’s crucial that you augment the peace process with tangible economic steps, and Rawabi is definitely a tangible step that we support.”

While Masri acknowledges that Rawabi does not represent the answer to all the problems facing a peace settlement, saying he “didn’t design it thinking Israel and Palestine would kiss and be happy,” he does harbor hopes that economic development will play a favorable role.

“In signing a peace agreement, there are concessions to be made, and if people are happy with their lives, they will be more supportive of making those concessions and getting their leaders to sign the dotted line,” he says.

However, some experts are less optimistic.

“Even if it got constructed and filled to capacity and became a thriving city, it will not change the underlying geo-political realities where Palestine is divided between two different governments, or address the settlements, which remain the biggest hurdle,” says Kamran Bokhari, the vice president of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs for Stratfor, a global intelligence company.

Bokhari also questions whether the Palestinian economy is strong enough to fill the units, the first 700 of which went on sale last month. Though more affordable than other West Bank properties, at $60,000 to $170,000, their price tag is aimed at the middle class.

“The Palestinian economy is in shambles. It does not have too many indigenous sources of revenue,” Bokhari says.

Masri, however, says he’s already sold 90% of the listed units.

“We’re selling units as fast as we can process them right now, which is a great problem to have.”

One feature that makes the apartments both popular and difficult to process is the financing options available. The West Bank doesn’t have a traditional mortgage system in place; often, accommodation is paid for up front, in cash. In 2010, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the International Finance Corporation set up a $500 million mortgage fund that has revolutionized the Palestinian property market.

“I’d say 99% of buyers at Rawabi wouldn’t be able to afford it without financing,” says Masri. “It’s a process you’re used to in the U.S., but it’s new to us, and takes four to five hours to go through an application.”

However there remains the worry that buying — let alone developing — a property in the West Bank is a risky investment.
“Let’s say some sort of strike begins in the West Bank, or there’s spillover from Syria and Israeli authorities have to crack down. This kind of project will obviously be vulnerable,” says Bokhari. “The people funding this project will hit the brakes.”

Masri acknowledges that Rawabi would be in trouble under such an occurrence, though it is not something that seems to cause him much distress.

“A little downtrend in politics will hurt Rawabi, but never destroy Rawabi,” he says. “It may delay it another year, or two, or five, but it will never kill the idea.”

Shuchen Tan’s promotional video: The Promised City: One Way To Build A Palestinian State
Information on the companies, partnerships and economic strategy for Rawabi, RTI’s promotional brochure:Rawabi: An Economic Growth Strategy
for the West Bank

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