One possible future of Palestinian society is being built, at a breathtaking pace, just north of Ramallah, on a hilltop facing the small Jewish settlement of Ateret. It is the town of Rawabi, which bills itself as the “first planned Palestinian city,” and which sits in a formerly bare stretch of the West Bank like an oasis of construction equipment and activity.
I came to Rawabi by tagging along with a group of American Jewish leaders, some of them rabbis, some of whom had been to Rawabi before. But it is hard to prepare for what one sees here—so out of sample, as they say, with conventional wisdom about the relationship between the West Bank and Israel. One woman on the trip began crying with amazement just after we arrived. She did not stop for twenty minutes.
Even before entering Rawabi proper you can feel its presence. At one end are gorgeous square blocks of finished apartments built from white stone. Terraced into the hillside, they rise into the sky at perfectly proportioned angles. At the other end, like a page out of Richard Scarry, you can see a town being assembled piece by piece—a foundation being poured here, electricity being strung through a set of open walls over there.
We are greeted at the roundabout that leads to town by Amir Dajani, a London-educated whirlwind of a man who serves as the assistant director of the Rawabi project. If there’s a foreman of this Palestinian Busytown, Amir is it. He quotes the price of steel and talks about sourcing stone from the nearby hillside and machinery from a company based in Tel Aviv. He tells us that his family has lived in Jerusalem for at least 700 years. He talks about capturing gray water and designs that lower energy usage by 25%. He points out the truck with Israeli license plates that sits outside his quarry. “There are two or three Israeli businessmen here every day,” Amir says. “If we can’t get something from the West Bank, we get it from Israel. How else can it be done?”
Their models, Amir says, are explicitly Zionist. Like the Jewish pioneers of the ‘20s and ‘30s, they aim to create “facts on the ground” that will transform Palestinian life. The closest analogue to Rawabi is the Jewish city of Modi’in, a planned town just on the Israeli side of the Green Line designed by the famous architect Moshe Safdie. They have studied Modi’in, to learn from its lessons and improve upon it.
We pull up to the head office of the Rawabi project, formally known as the Bayti Real Estate Investment Company. Set on a hill with views, on a clear day, all the way to Tel Aviv, the office has in front an elegant modern sculpture and, atop a high flagpole, the largest Palestinian flag any of us has ever seen. As we go inside, our tour driver, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, takes out his iPhone and snaps a picture of it. (Also prominent throughout Rawabi are Qatari flags—the government-backed Qatari development fund is a major investor.)
Inside we are introduced to Bashar Masri, the mastermind and primary investor behind Rawabi, and a member—I later find out—of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the West Bank. Masri’s dress is Casual Expensive—well-tailored jeans and fine comfortable shoes—and he is friendly and welcoming. He loves to tell the Rawabi story. Rawabi, Masri tells us, is being built for the Palestinian middle class. Their target demographic is young families, college-educated—say, from Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, or An-Najah in Nablus. It will have the second largest mosque in the West Bank as well as a church (the Greek Patriarch came up from Jerusalem to dedicate the site). Next to the mosque will be a soccer stadium and, built into a natural hillside, an amphitheater where they hope to host Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian wedding singer who won this year’s Arab Idol contest. All of this is in the master plan, viewable in sophisticated videos and in the meticulous scale models displayed in the development office.
He owns a number of companies and made his personal fortune growing fruit and vegetables in the West Bank and Gaza, often—in a situation much more common than most people know—in partnership with Israeli companies to export to Europe. (“We don’t do much in Gaza anymore,” he says, in a rather casual nod to Hamas.) He enjoys a strong level of access to Israeli government figures—though he has argued over issues like water rights—and is regularly denounced in the press by Palestinian activists associated with the movement to boycott Israel. But Masri, clearly, does not believe in the boycott, notfor his business and not for his people. “What’s bad for Israel,” Masri says, “Is not necessarily good for Palestine.”
It was the first day of Ramadan, early July—an exceptionally long fast day. Observant Muslims had been fasting since four a.m. As we sat and talked, Rawabi development staff brought out a simple snack of coffee and dessert. In a region known for its shows of piety and masculinity, I was struck by Masry’s lack of need to perform his Muslim identity in front of a group of Jews, or in front of his staff as he sat before those Jews. Or perhaps his wealth and confidence is its own performance. He drank coffee and nibbled wafer cookies of a sort found in every Israeli and Palestinian grocery store.
Everything about Rawabi is contemporary, almost unbelievable. It has a web site and a Facebook page. The development office is spotless and futuristic, unlike anything in the West Bank or Israel itself. There are widescreen movies with attractive actors moving through the future town. There are five glass kiosks with banks to assist you with your mortgage, including one that conforms to Islamic financing laws. Once you buy, you visit a showroom as gleaming as a Mercedes dealership to select your bedroom set, your refrigerator, your bathroom fixtures. Everything is completely furnished by the time you move in. As we sat with Masri, an attractive young Palestinian couple came in to choose their furniture—he in a fitted t-shirt, she in jeans and high heels and a black hijab covering her hair and neckline. They thumbed through catalogues and turned faucet handles to try them out. Their mortgage had long since been approved and they were now waiting for their move-in date.
Even the name of this new Palestinian city was carefully chosen—blandness as a political virtue. There was a public contest to name the town, Masri tells us, with the equivalent of $500 as a prize for the winner. Most of the suggestions were drawn from the hard end of modern Palestinian history—pleas for the town to be named after martyrs, or prisoners in Israeli jails, or towns that existed pre-1948 on the other side of the Green Line. Others leaned toward the abstract and heavily symbolic: Hope, Faith, Return. Masri rejected them all. Two people suggested Rawabi, meaning hills. Masri gave them each $500.
Rawabi is a test to see if practical, day-to-day improvement in people’s lives can be its own kind of politics. The only point of Rawabi, Amir told us, as we wound down the hill to first enter the town, is to create a “better future, inshallah.” The glistening apartments of Rawabi will welcome their first residents in 2014.