New metropolis built on Palestinian hopes

Rawabi is mostly built with rock carved from the hills in the city in the West Bank. It is the most ambitious project in the Palestinian territories and the largest private-sector employer here.
Rawabi is mostly built with rock carved from the hills in the city in the West Bank. It is the most ambitious project in the Palestinian territories and the largest private-sector employer here.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Rawabi is the first planned city in the West Bank built by Palestinians for Palestinians

RAWABI (West Bank) • In the newest city in Palestine, the developer Bashar Masri is putting the finishing touches on his mall. Not just any mall. "A shopping experience", as luxe as any in Israel, with aspirational sneakers, designer handbags, all the international brands never available here before.

Upmarket consumer options might be ho-hum news in most of the world, but this is not any other place.

This is the occupied West Bank, a hornet's nest of a home to 2.6 million Palestinians and brigades of Israeli soldiers and 400,000 Jewish settlers who have come to claim the land they say was awarded to them by history and God.

Rawabi is the first planned city in the West Bank built by Palestinians for Palestinians, a US$1.4 billion (S$1.94 billion) metropolis constructed over the last nine years from bare rock.

The city is the most ambitious project in the Palestinian territories and today is the largest private-sector employer here.

Mr Masri is billing his city on a hill as a revolutionary act, a raised fist with a wallet. "We will live like normal people," he said, "until the situation is normal."

MAKING A STATEMENT

We will live like normal people, until the situation is normal. ''

DEVELOPER BASHAR MASRI, billing his city on a hill as a revolutionary act.

As the Israeli occupation of the West Bank turns 50 years old next month, Israel will celebrate the taking of Jerusalem in its near-miraculous Six-Day War against Arab armies led by Egypt, Syria and Jordan. On the other side of 8m-tall concrete walls that surround Jerusalem, Palestinians will point to an occupation that now appears to be never-ending, with its levers of control ever present: the separation barriers, permit regimes, crowded checkpoints.

If Palestinians cannot get permission to spend their money in Israeli malls, Mr Masri said, let them shop in Rawabi. That is how you build a state. Rawabi is the counter-narrative in the conflict in which Palestinians are often portrayed as terrorist or victim, living in refugee camps or dusty villages out of biblical times.

The Palestinians Mr Masri has in mind? The dentists, Web designers and middle managers who do not make the news.

The half-built city of Rawabi has been a media darling for years, a tour-bus destination for visiting Norwegian diplomats, Harvard Business School scholars, Arab venture capitalists, adventuresome American Jews and, most recently, rock band Coldplay - because nothing like this has been tried here before.

This is what a new Palestinian state could look like, says Mr Masri, a metropolis with a 15,000-seat Roman-style amphitheatre hosting Broadway shows, with Palestinian techies typing code for Israeli companies and children learning crisp diction in the British-style Rawabi English Academy. Mr Masri believes that if he offers his people Zumba classes, they will come.

Or it could all fall apart.

The grand opening of Rawabi's Q Centre, named after the city's Qatari backers. is just days away at the end of this month. If his mall succeeds, if his business centre succeeds, Mr Masri said, there is commerce, there are jobs and people.

He also said Rawabi could collapse if the Israeli military government, which runs most of the West Bank, decides to turn off the water or electricity, again. The Israelis could shut down the access roads too. They have done it before.

Rawabi could also fail if Palestinians decide they do not want what Mr Masri is selling.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'New metropolis built on Palestinian hopes'. Print Edition | Subscribe