The new Palestinian city that lacks only one thing
- 7 February 2015
- From the section Magazine
A Palestinian millionaire has built a totally new city from scratch in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, complete with a Roman amphitheatre and football stadium. But one thing is stopping people moving in - there's no water.
You know what they say about property: "Location, location, location."
What about building in the midst of one of the world's most intractable conflicts?
"It's the biggest ever project in Palestinian history," exclaims American-Palestinian multi-millionaire Bashar Masri, the driving force behind a new Palestinian city in the hills of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"There's nothing even close to this, not even half this," Masri enthuses. We're walking across what will be a grand Roman amphitheatre in the foothills of a jagged skyline of apartment blocks that, one day, 25,000 people may call home. There's also the promise of cinemas and shops, parks and playing fields, to complete the kind of middle class dream you'd see in a property development anywhere.
But build on controversial land, and controversy comes with the price.
Palestinian critics accuse him of "normalising the occupation", of making deals with Israel for private profit. Jewish settlers on nearby hills watch and worry as Rawabi rises from the ground.
"I am defying the occupation," insists the well-dressed and well-spoken Masri, who comes from an extended Palestinian family known for its financial success and political savvy.
His risk-taking real estate is a microcosm of the tumultuous process of Israel-Palestinian peace-making and the web of complex relationships in the occupied territories.
Over the past turbulent year, which has included the collapse of the peace process and eruption of another war, we have followed the fate of this audacious project.
Could this billion-dollar gamble possibly succeed?
"I can just see everything, in my mind, complete," Masri tells us on our first visit to Rawabi, in the spring of last year. A slim man in his fifties, he strides confidently across paving stones strewn with coils of wire and piles of stone.
"I see people here in the restaurants, I see people in the homes…" His voice trails off as he gazes across the dusty terrain which now consumes most of his time and a lot of his money.
Cranes draped with Palestinian flags soar above the concrete shells of homes, and trucks rumble past laden with cement.
By early 2014, more than 600 families have bought into his dream. Ayman and Suhad Ibrahim are among the first to visit a gleaming showroom set on a manicured lawn dotted with slender trees and graceful sculptures.
Like many Palestinian professionals, the Ibrahims are now living about 6 miles (10km) away in the city of Ramallah, which they describe as a crowded jumble with no outdoor space for their three children to play.
Rawabi promises gardens, trees, and quiet. Their plans are taking shape - a Bedouin-themed corner in the living room; pink and blue shades in the children's bedrooms.
And Rawabi is about more than a nice home.
"It's the first step to building a small model for a Palestinian state," says Suhad.
"It's creating a truth on the ground," Ayman explains. "First of all we want peace, we want to build our future. We have the ability, and it's our land."
Masri leads us up an empty stairwell to inspect one of the finished showroom apartments. It's light and contemporary, with gleaming kitchens complete with fridge magnets from Paris, as well as stylish sofas, and a whiff of scented candles.
But the view from the windows of a modern oasis of calm is the age-old conflict of this neighbourhood.
Step on to the balcony and the hills are also alive with blue and white Israeli flags billowing on the next hilltop in the Jewish settlement of Ateret.
"We're not promising people here heaven, we're not promising anything less than we are still under occupation," insists Masri.
In a nod to his Palestinian critics, he adds: "This is not normalising and accepting the occupation and looking the other way."
For their part, the 800 Jewish settlers living in Ateret can see the line of Palestinian flags that flutter on the hills of Rawabi, including a giant one measuring 1,450 sq ft.
In the spring of 2014, we find Ateret residents suspicious, but already resigned to the new city's existence.
Families like Chanan and Avigail Damri express satisfaction that Palestinians will be able to live in a nice place, but they worry about what it means for traffic and security. Their kids travel to school by armoured bus, and there is frequent stone-throwing on the roads.
The Damris are softly spoken with a strong political message. "This state is our state. The Jewish nation needs a home so much. We need to always remember that it's our land and we are the landlords," explains Avigail as their young boys play games on the floor in their modest bungalow.
Like Israel's government, they reject the claim that settlements are illegal under international law.
If negotiations ever lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, settlements like Ateret are likely to fall within that state.
The Damris don't believe that will happen any time soon but suspect Rawabi is an effort to move toward it. "We can't let that happen," says Chanan.
From the nearby hill, Masri is equally defiant. "It's our land they're sitting on. I am 100% confident that [Ateret] will be a suburb of Rawabi one day - it's just a question of when."
He baulks at comparisons between Rawabi and Israeli settlements, but concedes his strategy is similar: building on the hilltops, creating Palestinian "facts on the ground". "If we did this 10 years ago, we wouldn't have seen the settlement boom that we saw today."
To build here, Masri has needed co-operation from Israeli officials every step of the way since plans first surfaced on paper seven years ago - even on where to build the city, and a temporary access road.
Rawabi is being built in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority within the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but access to a permanent road and a fixed pipeline goes through an area which an interim peace accord placed under Israeli jurisdiction.
About 60% of the West Bank, including settlements and their access roads, as well as military bases, is under direct Israeli administration.
"What did you want me to do, stop living?" Masri demands rhetorically, in response to his critics. "The water most Palestinians drink is from Israel, so is our electricity."
But a Palestinian activist we meet close to a nearby Israeli checkpoint, on a day when the death of a 21-year-old Palestinian has led to the eruption of clashes between soldiers and protesters, says Rawabi is "just a way for [Masri] to expand his wealth".
"That's not resistance," he adds.
Asked about Palestinians who want a better standard of living, he retorts: "Which nice life are they talking about? The way to Rawabi is full of checkpoints. The Israelis can block the road and prevent anyone from reaching the city. "
Masri's critics also accuse him of building for a privileged elite. A typical apartment in Rawabi costs $95,000 (£62,000) which is cheaper than in Ramallah, but well above what many Palestinians can afford. There's also a chronic shortage of affordable housing in the West Bank.
Masri insists Rawabi isn't just for the rich. He says the cost of apartments is within reach for many middle-class Palestinians. But he also blames the Palestinian Authority for not helping him finance low-income housing.
Masri is funding the $1bn project from his own considerable fortune, as well as with hundreds of millions from the real estate arm of the Qatar Investment Authority. The wealthy Gulf state has become a powerful player across the Middle East. Masri concedes that their backing is politically as well as commercially motivated, and, admits they requested a very big mosque.
Over the past year, we've seen how Rawabi is slowly but surely taking shape. The project's first phase is now almost complete, and nearly ready for residents to move in.
But, at this late stage, the politics of property has thrown up another major hurdle - Rawabi doesn't have water.
All new water infrastructure larger than a pipe 2in (5cm) in diameter has to be approved by the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Committee. But the JWC hasn't met for years.
Construction teams are using a village well but this new city needs a fixed pipeline.
There was a glimmer of hope when moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks finally resumed in the summer of 2013, under concerted international pressure and constant US mediation.
But, by early 2014, talks broke down.
And then came a summer of discontent: a wave of kidnapping and killings in the West Bank; a war in Gaza and rockets fired into Israel; rising political recrimination.
When we return to Rawabi at the end of 2014, even Masri's trademark optimism is beginning to falter.
"We are reaching a point where we are seeing a lot of the buyers raising questions. The word on the street is that we are in financial trouble. Well guess what, we are in financial trouble."
Despite repeated promises from Israel that water will be provided "in a few weeks", the JWC still hasn't met. And both Israeli and Palestinian officials are dragging their feet.
Masri suspects he's become a bargaining chip - that Israel will only agree to Rawabi's water if the Palestinians retrospectively approve water that's already installed in Jewish settlements.
That's a deal the Palestinians won't do.
Col Grisha Yakubovich of the military body which administers Israel's occupation in the West Bank, COGAT, is adamant that "there are no conditions". "Water will come in days, or weeks," he tells us.
Other sources corroborate the quid pro quo arrangement, including Middle-East envoy Tony Blair.
At his offices in east Jerusalem, Blair says the Palestinians have a point in refusing to agree to the water supplies provided for the Jewish settlements, whose existence are a key plank in negotiations.
"When there's an absence of a political process, what happens is that everything else becomes a casualty of that paralysis. There was a period of time when this went through the Joint Water Committee in a very non-political way," he says.
He's raised the water issue with Israeli officials. "Even President Obama has raised it," he adds, his voice rising with exasperation.
That's because a lot more than one big building project rests on the fate of Rawabi.
"It's going to be a lot tougher for us to bring in investment from people outside of Palestine if one of the leading Palestinian businessmen can't get his project to go ahead inside what would undoubtedly be a Palestinian state," Blair explains. He's responsible for overseeing a $4bn economic plan for Palestinian areas, announced last year as an effort to bolster a beleaguered peace process.
As Rawabi's water remains hostage to politics, its would-be residents are losing hope.
Some, including the Ibrahims, have pulled out. They tell us, over the telephone, that they still believe passionately in this project. But they need somewhere to live.
Israeli officials insist Rawabi will not fail. "Rawabi is supported by Israel," says COGAT's Grisha Yakubovich. "We want to see happy people at the end."
In this crisis, many Palestinians see another troubling omen.
"If Rawabi fails, it's a failure for the two-state solution. It's a failure for the peace process", argues Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
On our last visit to Rawabi, Masri leads us on to the majestic stage of his Roman amphitheatre, waving his arms with a flourish of pride to show an inviting stadium which is nearly complete. The honey-coloured columns, which lay in the dust on our first visit, now stand tall, framing the hills all around us.
"I would love to see [a peace deal] in a year's time, I would love to see it in my lifetime, I want to enjoy it. But if it doesn't happen in my lifetime, so be it, we will keep on working for it."
Does he regret building Rawabi?
"Not a single moment. Never ever."
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