First planned Palestinian city a symbol of pride

Construction meant to spur a sluggish Palestinian economy has been held back by Israeli constraints on access and movement, amid efforts to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood

By Karin Laub  /  AP, RAWABI, West Bank

Mon, Dec 09, 2013 - Page 9

A state-of-the-art Palestinian city with residential towers, a mall and a convention center is rapidly going up on once-desolate West Bank hills and turning into a symbol of national pride.

A giant Palestinian flag flies from the highest point of Rawabi, signaling to Israeli settlers living nearby that the first new Palestinian city being built since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 is not just about real estate.

“It’s a message ... that we can also put facts on the ground,” Palestinian-American developer Bashar Masri said, using an expression associated with Israel’s settlement construction on lands Palestinians want for a state.

However, the West Bank’s largest private investment project, totaling more than US$1 billion, has also suffered costly delays because of wrangling with Israel over an access road that still lacks final approval, he said.

Rawabi’s bumpy history illustrates the constraints of doing business under occupation, Masri said. It is also a harbinger of challenges US Secretary of State John Kerry likely will face as he promotes a three-year plan for even more ambitious economic projects in the Palestinian territories, particularly in areas where Israel has restricted Palestinian development in the past.

The plan is meant to transform a sluggish Palestinian economy held back by Israeli constraints on access and movement as Israelis and Palestinians negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood. However, progress on the economic track is unlikely without a breakthrough in the talks, which are stuck after four months. Kerry was back in the region on Thursday to try to break the impasse, but the two sides remain far apart.

Rawabi, Arabic for “hills,” offers a glimpse of what could be if statehood talks succeed.

The city looks like the large urban Israeli settlements in the West Bank with neat rows of apartment buildings and will have amenities unheard of in Palestinian towns, at least in such concentration. Those include an open-air shopping mall, a convention center, restaurants, three movie theaters, a gym, a five-star hotel, a science museum, a medical complex, an amphitheater seating 5,000 and a soccer stadium.

It is the first Palestinian city built according to a master plan, in contrast to the crowded and often chaotic West Bank towns and refugee camps. The Palestinians have lived largely under someone else’s rule, with limited local authority that did not allow for large-scale urban design.

Construction in Rawabi began in 2011, with 5,000 laborers working in two shifts. Eventually, Rawabi is to have 30,000 residents in 6,000 apartments and homes. Apartments in two of the planned 23 neighborhoods and sections of the town center have been completed, and the first tenants are to move in by May.

On a recent afternoon, 40-year-old high-school principal Abdel Baset Mahmeed from the Arab Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, was touring Rawabi’s hilltop showroom displays of glass-encased models of the city.

“I never expected to see something like this in Palestine,” Mahmeed said.

Next to the showroom, the giant Palestinian flag, measuring 135m2, flew from a tall pole, in direct line of sight of the small Israeli settlement of Ateret on the next hill. Such proximity of Israeli settlers and Palestinians is typical of the West Bank’s patchwork of jurisdictions. Palestinians run their own affairs on just over one-third of the land, while the remaining 61 percent, called Area C, remains under Israeli control and is home to 350,000 Israeli settlers.

The World Bank has said that less than 1 percent of Area C is open for Palestinian use. The Palestinians could expand their economy by one-third if Israel allowed them access, the bank said.

Israel has said developing the Palestinian economy is a strategic interest, but that issues such as access to Area C needed to be dealt with in negotiations.

The Rawabi developers, Masri’s Massar International and Qatar’s Diar Real Estate Investment Co, ran into trouble over the land divisions early on in the project. More than 90 percent of the city’s 631 hectares is under full Palestinian control, but the access road runs through Area C for about 3km.

Masri said he spent five years trying to get Israeli approval for the access road, with former British prime minister Tony Blair lobbying on Rawabi’s behalf with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. About two years ago, Israel granted a temporary permit for a two-lane paved road, enabling Masri to push ahead with the construction.

A request for a permanent permit is now being considered, Israeli military spokesman Major Guy Inbar said.

He said the process could only begin when Masri bought land alongside the road a few months ago so that it could be widened.

Rawabi spokesman Jack Nassar said Israel had denied permit requests because the road runs through Area C, close to a settlement, not because of land ownership issues.

The conflict over the road has caused delays and uncertainty, Masri said.

“A lot of people are skeptical about buying because they worry about the road,” he said.

“They don’t want to be in a prison,” he said, referring to previous periods of unrest in the West Bank when Israeli troops would seal Palestinian communities.

The project is also running over budget because the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority has not kept its promise to lay down infrastructure, Masri said.

He has had to raise apartment prices and is now trying to attract more buyers with easier financing, he said, adding that more than 600 apartments have been sold. Masri said he has no regrets.

“Investing in Palestine is very risky, regardless of what project,” he said.

Netanyahu has said he supports economic development in the West Bank and has eased some restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement. His office did not respond to requests for comment on Kerry’s economic plan, which includes another new city and a Dead Sea tourism resort in Area C.

US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the economic development track is being discussed with both sides.

The top official in charge of the West Bank economy, Mohammed Mustafa, said the plan could quickly wean the Palestinian self-rule government off foreign aid, but will not go anywhere unless Netanyahu gets on board.

“I was told that some approvals [of projects] require 16 Israeli [entities] to agree to it,” he said. “This is not a recipe for success. What needs to be done is ... a political agreement for the whole package to be approved.”

Additional reporting by Lara Jakes