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Story Publication logo February 28, 2012

A Palestinian City for a New Generation

Media file: westbank.jpg

With the economy slowing and the peace process in stagnation, the West Bank's younger generation is...


When Palestinian businessman and developer Bashar Masri first set out to name the modern city he is building in the West Bank, he asked the community for suggestions. About a third of the entries were revolutionary names: Arafat was popular, so was Jihad. Another third were names looking towards a better future: Amal, Arabic for "hope," came in at number one. But Masri says he didn't want a name with a political connotation of any kind. In the end he chose to name the city Rawabi, meaning "hills."

The decision reflects the core of what Masri, the visionary behind the $850 million private investment project, is trying to do with Rawabi—the most far-reaching building project ever contemplated in the West Bank. From a wealthy Nablus family, Masri worked with Yasser Arafat in his youth, and was with the late PLO leader in Washington D.C. when he walked away from the Clinton peace initiative in December 2000. Yet, Masri has come to the belief that, despite politics, building constructive working relationships with Israelis is vital to building a better future for Palestinians. Today, the former political prisoner is a regular guest in the homes of top Israeli businessmen and has hired Ariel Sharon's former chief of staff to serve as a legal advisor for the project.

Masri's Rawabi project is part of the ambitious nation-building initiative undertaken by Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad. Since 2009, the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Fayyad has initiated more than one thousand development projects, including paving roads, planting trees, digging wells, and constructing new buildings. The PA has also sought to encourage private investment and create incentives for development and growth. Fayyad's objective: to help Palestine acquire the civil and economic infrastructure of a state and thus put pressure on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to recognize this progress. This approach is built on a belief that you can achieve with economic growth what years of negotiations and violent uprisings have not—the creation of a Palestinian state.

Of all these projects, none has the symbolic value of Rawabi, now billed as the gateway to the future Palestine. Builders envision 40,000 Palestinians enjoying comforts akin to a U.S. suburb instead of crowded and disorganized towns and villages with poor infrastructure. A business venture by Qatari Diar, a Qatar-based real estate developer, and Masri's West Bank-based Massar International, the city promises 1,000 pricey deluxe units and 5,000 homes for a growing middle-income bracket that can afford monthly mortgage payments of $450 to $1,000.

The kind of city that Masri is trying to build has never existed before in Palestine—one with green spaces, public parks, and a garbage-collection system. The city center will have office and residential towers, a conference hall and hotel, shops, cafes, three cinemas, an outdoor amphitheatre, mosques and a church.

But Masri wants to create not just a new city, but a new society as well. He is installing high-speed Internet to enable workers who wish to telecommute and he is building kindergartens so that mothers can work outside the home if they choose. Masri has vowed to make the project "green." He says it will be Palestine's first "pedestrian city" where people will be able to walk to work, lowering the West Bank's carbon emissions.

"In Palestine, the world has an opportunity to build a new state that's efficient and modern," he says.

Even the team he has assembled for the project reflects his vision of a vibrant modern Palestinian society. Masri's team is young, and he has hired women for a number of top positions.

When I visited the Rawabi site, I had the opportunity to meet one of the chief engineers, 25-year-old Shadia Jaradat. In 2009, Jaradat was finishing her degree in civil engineering at Birzeit University—one of a handful of students trained in new software called Building Information Modeling, or BIM. A revolutionary technology, BIM allows designers to build detailed 5-D models that include every element of the finished structure, such as concrete slabs, steel structure, wall and ceiling components, plumbing and electrical. The software runs tests to ensure everything will come together seamlessly.

But BIM was still cutting edge technology and it had never been used in Palestine. As graduation rolled around, Jaradat says she started to wonder what would come next. "I wanted to work on projects in Palestine, but they didn't use BIM here. The whole time I was always wondering, will I have to go to the Gulf countries? Will I have to go the States? Where am I going to find projects working with this technology?" She says she almost considered doing something different just so she could stay in the West Bank.

But in the spring before her graduation Masri announced that the Rawabi project would be the first Palestinian project built using BIM technology. Jaradat's instructor was hired to establish the engineering unit and, less than a week after graduating, Jaradat joined a team of five engineers responsible for designing the ambitious new city.

"I had heard about Rawabi, it's only ten minutes away from the University. I knew they were going to build a new city and all that but I didn't imagine that I would actually be able to work on that. It was beyond my dream, really," she says.

The team started to do self-training, taking tutorials, contacting people who knew how to work with this kind of project. "We sent designs back and forth 13, 14, 15 times," she remembers. "Everything had to be perfect."

Six months into the project, Jaradat and her colleague, Sahar Batrukh, also a recent graduate of Birzeit, were looking at pictures of the first building under construction when they realized that the contractors were not following the plans. "We were like, wait a second, don't we have a split level here; don't we have another foot in here? We were so familiar with the buildings—I mean we built each one sometimes 14 times—so we can tell just from looking at the building if something is not right."

The women approached Masri and pointed out the flaws. "We went back to Bashar and said we have a problem with that and that and that. And he said, okay, move to site. This is your new desk. We need you to make sure that everything is being done the right way."

But once on the site, the young women struggled to break into the male-dominated work culture. Many of the laborers were not used to working with female engineers, and many of the older engineers were dismissive of their ideas.

"We were young, we were female, and we were talking about something new. Because the older engineers didn't totally understand the new technology, they didn't want to use it," she says. "To them, they had been in this field for 20 years and hadn't needed it, so why use it now?"

Masri himself got involved. "Bashar came to the site and said, 'Whatever these two engineers say, you have to listen to it and understand it and discuss with them.'"

A year after Masri's intervention, Jaradat says that things have changed dramatically. Sitting in her office overlooking the site, she tells me that, in those early days, she and Batrukh had to spend every hour on the building site to make sure the plans were being carried out properly. Now that everybody is cooperating with the system, she only has to check in once every one or two weeks.

"Now, sometimes they even come to us and say 'What do you think about that?'" she says, a huge grin on her face.

"There is nowhere in the world where I can go to learn more than here at Rawabi. I am working on every part of this project—electrical, mechanical, structural, architecture. I am also working on the infrastructure, and the landscape, and the cost model, and the marketing. I'm even practicing working as a presenter," she laughs. Earlier that day, Jaradat had given a presentation to a group of students from American universities. Masri had asked that another employee tape her presentation, so she could watch it and improve her oration skills.

The culture of meritocracy that Masri has built in Rawabi is relatively new in Palestine. "In Rawabi, what I have come to understand is that it doesn't matter who you are or how old you are, or if you are a female or a male, it only matters what you know—whether it is right or wrong—and it is not easy to find a place like that," reflects Jaradat.

Jaradat talks excitedly of plans to build a Rawabi chess club. An internationally ranked chess player and the Palestinian 2007 national chess champion, Jaradat has spent seven years playing for a Hebron-based club that does not allow her to practice with them because of her gender.

"In order to compete in international competitions, I need to be part of a club," she explained. "So they said I can play in their name, but I have never met them."

When Masri heard this story, he suggested starting a Rawabi chess club for girls. Jaradat is looking into plans to hire a trainer, and says that there are many young Palestinian women who would be interested in joining, including her two sisters.

"My whole family, that's all we do is play chess!" Jaradat laughs. "We all compete internationally but the biggest games happen at home."

I ask who normally wins these games. She used to, she says, but recently her younger brother has been beating her. And sometimes her dad still pulls one out of the hat.

Jaradat's father went to prison nine times for his political activities in the 1970s. "He's the reason we all love chess," she explains. "He learned it in prison—there was nothing else to do." This is said as a passing reference, but it is a strong reminder of where we are and, in a way, how the Rawabi project is so much bigger than just a city.

Jaradat explains that, in her parents' generation, young people turned to violent resistance because "there was nothing to live for." But now, she says that projects like Rawabi are showing people that if they can build a state, they can have a better future.

"We are building our capacity inside our country," she explains. "And we are showing people that they can have a high standard of living in Palestine." Jaradat says that Rawabi is a symbol of her generation, "We are the project. We are working on this project for ourselves, to change our future. This is the kind of change my generation believes in."

Of the growing 8,000 potential homebuyers who have already signed up, most of them are close to Jaradat's age—members of the "Facebook generation," as Masri calls it. He plans to be personally involved in handpicking the first families to move into the city.

"It is essential to control the first population," he says. "We want people from different backgrounds and different cities in Palestine." Furthermore, he is telling companies that if they bring jobs to Rawabi, he will give their employees preference for living in the city, part of his vision of a bustling city serving as an important center of jobs.

But even though families are lined up to buy in Rawabi, there are a number of challenges still to overcome. The most important of these is the issue of an access road. Rawabi is in Palestinian-administered territory, but 2.8 kilometers of the future road would pass through a part of the West Bank known as Area C, which is under Israeli control. Masri has been seeking Israeli government approval for the road for four years, yet no progress has been made.

In late 2010, the Israeli government elevated the status of the road to the peace talks, saying that if direct talks begin, then the road to Rawabi will be approved. With this development, Masri put his demand for the access road on hold. "Rawabi is not for political bargaining, so when they did that, I stopped asking," he says. Instead, he began pushing for a temporary trucking route so that construction could continue on schedule. This short-term road has recently been approved, but it met vehement opposition from settler groups and right-wing members of the Knesset.

Having punted on the issue of a permanent access road, the fate of the Rawabi is unclear. Without the access road, Rawabi will fail. And though the project has many supporters in the Israeli government, there are others who are determined to stop it from succeeding. In 2010, Knesset Member Yaakov Katz, who lives in a nearby settlement, told a group of settlers that if Rawabi is built it will not be for Palestinian inhabitants.

"We should encourage the government to speed up the construction in Rawabi so that it will be able to house all the Jews from around the world who will be arriving in Israel. The Arabs built us Ramle and Lod, and they will also build us Rawabi, which we should name North Ateret," he said.

Besides Israel's hesitation to approve the road, the fate of the project rests on its ability to weather the constant challenges that come with building in the politically tense environment of the West Bank. In a conflict rife with symbolism, Rawabi has already had to navigate a minefield of identity issues. In January 2011, 48 Members of Knesset signed a boycott against 20 Israeli companies selling products to the project. As part of their contract with Masri, these companies had agreed not to use products from Israeli settlements, including those in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, for construction of the Palestinian city. The boycott call accused the Israeli companies of selling the "soul of Zionism and national solidarity for a handful of dollars."

That same month, Rawabi came under fire on the same issue—this time from the Palestinian side. The Rawabi website encouraged investors, business owners and residents to "Grow a Tree in Palestine," a campaign intended to symbolize the hope for growth and optimism for the future. "The Palestine of our parents' generation was lush with fruit orchards and flowering trees—olive, oak, citrus, nut and evergreen varieties ornamented the Palestinian landscape," the website reads. "Today, however, the natural beauty of the land is being lost to the ravages of war, neglect, development and climate change."

But some Palestinians were angered when they learned that the Jewish National Fund had donated trees to Rawabi. A local news agency published a scathing piece accusing Masri of implicating Rawabi "in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine alongside the JNF and the Israeli army."

Masri takes these flare-ups in stride. "You know you're doing something right when groups on both sides are mad at you for the same thing," he says. But the reality is that these issues have created constant headaches for the project. During my visit, a group of Jewish settlers came to Rawabi to protest and had to be removed by the Israeli army. Five days later, Rawabi employees were held up for more than two hours on their way home from work at a checkpoint that is normally abandoned.

Masri says that he cannot dwell on the possibility of failure. Instead, he talks about how Palestinians who previously doubted the viability of the project now believe in it.

"We are being approached by a broad spectrum of investors and entrepreneurs who want to open up businesses in Rawabi. The fact that people are willing to put their money behind the project is a sign that they believe that Rawabi is really going to happen."

If Rawabi fails, it will be more than the failure to build a modern city. If it succeeds, it could be a bold model for entrepreneurs and those looking to invest in the development of the Palestinian state.

"Others are already thinking about Rawabi Two, Rawabi Three," says Masri. He also believes that, if successful, Rawabi can serve as a model for creating homes and employment opportunities in the poorer areas of the West Bank and Gaza. "Cities like Rawabi focus on middle-income young people and families," he explains, "but if the Rawabi model is successful in creating jobs, then we can take this model to more needy areas, areas near Jenin, near Hebron." The timeline? "Give us a few years to see how well this works," he says.

Recent developments suggest that Palestine needs private investment projects like Rawabi now more than ever. In September, the International Monetary Fund reported that economic growth in the West Bank, which had been positive for the past three years, slowed from 8 percent in 2010 to 4 percent in the first half of 2011. The report said that this is primarily due to a lag in donor aid. Europe, with its own economic crisis, has drastically cut its aid. Last fall the U.S. Congress froze two-thirds of its $600 million annual support for Palestinians—$140 million still remains blocked. The uncertainties of dependence on outside aid have made the West Bank economy highly vulnerable. Masri sees the future of the Palestinian economy driven by private investment projects much like his own—ones that promote sustainable growth and are less dependent on the international community. "This is where the future is," he says.

Though the fate of Rawabi is still unclear, Jaradat talks about the project as if it is a sure thing. She leads the way into an adjacent room, where a model of the future city is lit up to show visitors and prospective buyers.

"Let me show you the one I want," she says excitedly. "I used to change my mind every week, but I've finally picked one." She points to a towering building overlooking the city center. "From the balcony you can see all the way to the coast," she says. I gesture to a miniature woman standing on the balcony of the apartment that Jaradat has pointed out. "So that will be you," I say. "Yes, in a few years, that will be me," she laughs. "Except I won't be wearing a veil."


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