A highlight of my synagogue's mission to Israel and the west bank earlier this month was our visit to Rawabi, a model Palestinian city emerging out of the “hills” (Rawabi means “hills” in Arabic) between Ramallah, Nablus and Tel Aviv.
This city will eventually house 40,000 middle class young Palestinians and families in 6000 condominiums on 1560 acres. There will be banks, shops, offices, eight public and private schools, playgrounds, parks, hiking trails, an arts center, two mosques, a Greek Orthodox Church, a hospital, movie theaters, and a 20,000 seat amphitheater for sporting events and concerts.
The construction is using 10,000 workers, and the builders hope that eventually 3000 to 5000 new jobs will be created in the city.
The man behind this project is Bashir al-Masri, a 52 year old charismatic Nablus born and American educated businessman who raised more than $500 million from the oil-rich nation of Qatar and contributed $300 million from his private conglomerate, Massar International.
Each unit will cost between $60,000 and $200,000. Mr. al-Masri is promoting what he calls “Islamic financing” in which “service charges” will replace interest payments, forbidden by Islamic law.
We met for more than an hour with Bashir thanks to Felice Friedson, co-founder and Executive Producer for “The Media Line “ (TML) and her husband, Michael Friedson, co-founder and Executive Editor and Director of Media Services for TML. TML is a well-respected non-profit news organization in the Middle East that feeds stories daily to Al Jazeera, CNN, the BBC, Israeli, and American news services.
To a person, our group was impressed not just by the scope of this project (a modern "wonder of the world!?"), but by Bashir’s staff, organization, expertise, intelligence, optimism, and drive.
Though Mr. al-Masri has met many hurdles along the way since first conceiving this project in 2007 (construction began in 2011), nothing seems to diminish his vision and optimism. Obstacles include a promised $150 million contribution by the Palestinian Authority to build schools and a police station that never materialized, allegedly because the government is broke despite the nearly $4 billion the PA receives from foreign governments and international NGOs each year, and two significant political obstacles presented by the state of Israel.
Though Rawabi is in Area A, controlled by the PA per the Oslo Accords, the west bank is under Israeli military authority. Bashir has had co-operation from Israeli authorities, but Israel approves construction of roads that pass through Area C, which is Israeli controlled. There is an access road for construction equipment, however a road wide enough to accommodate the 40,000 future Rawabi residents has not as yet been approved.
The second obstacle is water. Trucks are bringing water in for construction purposes, but there are no arrangements with Israel as yet to provide water to the city.
Bashir believes that PM Netanyahu is using access roads and water as negotiating chips with the Palestinian Authority in the peace negotiations, thus the delay of arrangements, he told us with bitterness and frustration.
Criticism of the project has come from two quarters. West bank Jewish settlers complain that Palestinians are building new homes by the thousands while the expansion of their settlements (nay – illegal “outposts”) is constrained. Orint Flint, a settler of Ateret (an illegal “outpost” built in defiance of Israeli government policy but with Israeli compliance) said “It feels like unfair treatment of Jewish residents.” (The Guardian, August 8, 2013)
There are also Palestinian critics who are part of the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) who charge that Bashir al-Masri and other Palestinian business people are helping to “whitewash [Israel’s] ongoing occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people” by cooperating with Israeli industry and consulting with Israeli architects and engineers. (The Guardian, ibid)
Al-Masri told us that support is coming to him from every quarter, including internationally famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie who volunteered to help in any way he could because he was moved and impressed by the scope and vision of the project and its importance to the future state of Palestine.
I see no down side for the Palestinians and Israel in this project because Rawabi will be a stabilizing element for a state of Palestine. Bashir said that though he is happy to contribute to Palestinian nation-building, he is not motivated here by altruism. He is a businessman and out to make a profit.
With so much capital pouring into the west bank from Qatar and elsewhere, the Palestinians will have too much to lose to break cavalierly an agreement with Israel. The PA has shown, in this regard, its ability to coordinate security with Israel, and this is what Bashir is counting on in a two-state agreement.
I pray Rawabi succeeds as its success will be not only a success for Palestine, but for Israel as well!