In the unlikely biblical setting of the West Bank, where sheep and goats wander among ancient olive trees over rocky hillsides, an urban planner’s dream is taking shape: A gleaming high-tech city, with homes for 40,000 residents, cinemas, shopping malls, schools, landscaped walkways, office blocks, a conference center, restaurants and cafes, is rising on a crest within sight — on a clear day — of the Tel Aviv skyline in Israel.
It looks a little like a new Israeli settlement, but the US$1 billion city of Rawabi is the first planned urban center to be built for Palestinians. Phase one — 600 almost-completed apartments — has just sold out, with 8,000 potential buyers registered for homes yet to be constructed.
The level of interest reflects social and financial shifts in Palestinian society and the economic potential of a future state of Palestine.
More than half of those who have signed contracts have taken out long-term mortgages. Many are families with the mother working outside the home. A few are single women who plan to live alone, which is unusual in Palestinian society.
One-third of the US$1 billion investment in Rawabi has come from private Palestinian conglomerate Massar International and two-thirds from the Gulf state of Qatar.
“The risks are extremely high, but I wanted to create an impact project, and I wanted to show we can build a great economy and create jobs,” said Massar chief executive Bashar Masri, the driving force behind Rawabi.
The construction phase of the project has created between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs paying — at the bottom end — 30 percent above the Palestinian minimum wage. One in three workers are women. Masri’s ambition is to create 5,000 permanent jobs in the city, mostly in the high-tech and service industries.
Planning for Rawabi — which means Hills — began five years ago. It targets young middle-class Palestinian families living in the West Bank’s chaotic, overcrowded cities.
It offers modern, streamlined apartments, fabulous views and open spaces, with prices between 15 percent and 20 percent lower than in Ramallah, a few kilometers to the south.
Attracting potential homebuyers for the planned 6,000 units has not been difficult, but luring international companies to take office and retail space has been more problematic.
Rawabi is in territory under Israeli military occupation, a situation that has no clear prospect of changing, despite the start of peace talks next week.
Water has been another huge challenge.
Masri is also critical of the Palestinian Authority, which has failed to deliver on a pledge to supply Rawabi’s infrastructure at a cost of US$150 million, adding between 10 percent and 12 percent to the cost of a home.
He sees Rawabi as part of the Palestinian nation-building effort.
“The reason I’m optimistic is that the Palestinian people aren’t going anywhere and eventually they’ll give us a state,” he said.
Rawabi will not be complete for another seven years, but Masri said that creating the next modern Palestinian city “will not be as difficult.”