Rawabi, a city in the West Bank that represents Palestinian visions of a haven that mixes high living standards with cutting-edge architectural architecture, is draped in a huge Palestinian flag. The model city is located between Jerusalem and Nablus, some 6.3 square kilometers north of Ramallah on the West Bank (2.4 square miles).
Rawabi is the West Bank’s first developed settlement, a $1.4 billion metropolis created from the bare rock over the last nine years by Palestinians for Palestinians. The city is the most ambitious undertaking in the Palestinian territories, and it now employs the highest number of people in the private sector. Masri is promoting his city on a hill as a pioneering gesture, complete with a lifted fist and a wallet. “Until the condition is normal,” he said, “we will behave like normal people.”
In June, Israel will mark the 50th anniversary of its conquest of the West Bank by commemorating the capture of Jerusalem in its near-miracle Six-Day War against Arab armies led by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.
Palestinians will point to an occupation that now seems to be never-ending, with its power levers still present: separation fences, permit regimes, and busy checkpoints on the other side of the 26-foot-high concrete walls that ring Jerusalem. Allow Palestinians to shop in Rawabi if they are unable to obtain permission to invest their money in Israeli malls, according to Masri. That is how a state is formed. “Why not?” he asked. “We’ve worked hard for it.” Rawabi is a counter-narrative to the endless strife in which Palestinians are often depicted as terrorists or victims, living in refugee camps or dusty settlements straight out of the Bible.
Masri’s Palestinians, perhaps? Many of the up-and-coming Web designers, and middle managers who aren’t in the press. For years, the half-built city of Rawabi has become a media favorite, a tour bus stop for visiting Norwegian ambassadors, Harvard Business School professors, Arab venture capitalists, adventurous American Jews, and, most recently, Coldplay — because nothing like this has ever been attempted here before.
According to Masri, a new Palestinian state might look like this, with a 15,000-seat Roman-style amphitheater featuring Broadway shows like “Cats,” Palestinian coders typing code for Israeli firms, and children studying crisp diction at the British-style Rawabi English Academy. Masri claims that if he gives Zumba lessons to his community, they would attend. Or it could all come crashing down.
“There are 23 residential neighborhoods in the area, totaling over 5,000 housing units. If the construction phases are finished, it will be home to more than 40,000 residents, making it the largest Palestinian investment initiative to provide affordable housing for all sectors of Palestinian society. It also creates career prospects for hundreds of people who have discovered in this city a chance to realize their dreams and goals,” Fattah added.
Rawabi, he said, formed a connection between the present and the ancient heritage of the old Palestinian cities by giving the districts Canaanite names like Sawan, which means stone, and Makmatah, Dulaim, Waruar, Ikshaf, and Tarsa.
“The city’s streets and corridors are lined with stones and brightly colored tiles with period-inspired ironwork. The windows and building entrances are designed to look like ancient Palestinian arches, enhancing the area’s historic appearance,” Fattah said.
Industrial homes, parks, sports courts, worship centers, hospitals, banks, libraries, the Taj Rawabi Cinema, shops, open areas, a petrol station, a high-speed fiber-optic network, and the Rawabi English Academy are all part of the city of Rawabi. Besides, the city plans to construct the world’s largest Roman-inspired amphitheater, which will seat over 15,000 people.
“We hope Rawabi will be the cradle of a young generation whose ambitions will be realized. To restrict any settlement expansion in this area, there should be a geographical link between Rawabi and all Palestinian cities and villages,” Fattah said, adding that the city had already hosted several key figures including former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The $300 million scheme, according to Bayti chairman Bashar al-Masri, is intended to solve a housing crisis in the West Bank. “Our inspiration is to bring our expertise, as well as the experience of those who work with us in the field, to Palestine to help jumpstart the economy and build jobs,” he says.
While the building is labeled as “affordable,” it is not low-income housing. It would enable households with a combined monthly income of at least $800 to purchase a home. According to Masri, this could bring Rawabi within the control of certain Palestinian Authority employees.
It will have supermarkets, hotels, grocery stores, and offices in its business area. Masri aims to attract high-tech companies to set up shop. He expects the first houses to be completed by April 2009. Sewerage, bridges, sanitation, power, and other off-site facilities are expected to be provided by the Palestinian Authority for the scheme.
Other businesses would be able to acquire Rawabi property that is not owned by Bayti, but only if they follow the master plan’s zoning guidelines. Even though Bayti only owns one square kilometer of land in Rawabi, the proposal would span 5,000 dunams (five square kilometers) – including all areas that could be used by other developers.
According to Sam Bahour, a Ramallah industry strategist and developer, the process is distorted. “The government needs to do the master planning,” he adds. “Questions like whether the city should be built next to Ramallah or Hebron, or how close it should be to water supplies are questions that only the government will address because it has a complete vision of the country’s development.”
Abu Libdeh denies that the PA has delegated any of its responsibilities to Bayti. “Even if they draw the master plan, the government will approve it,” he says. “This is a business that chose to put its capital into a housing scheme. They presented their proposals to the government in terms of scale, incentives, and viability, and it is the government’s responsibility to provide off-site facilities not only for this region but for the whole world. Many who believe this business is exploiting the government or bending the government in one direction or another are mistaken.”
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