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Is Palestine's first planned city part of the resistance or a whitewash of the occupation?

January 24, 2014 at 6:33 am

From the disorder of a construction site in the occupied West Bank, a new vision of Palestine is rising. Not far from Ramallah, workers in hard hats are busy erecting plush office blocks, luxurious residential homes and Western shopping malls. This is Rawabi, Palestine’s first planned city.

The vision for the new city is grand. The $1 billion project, which has created around 8,000 to 10,000 new jobs for Palestinian workers, hopes to become home to 40,000 people with plans to build a cultural centre, an outdoor amphitheatre, at least eight private and public schools, a specialised hospital and places of worship for multiple religions to service the town’s population and its visitors.

But Rawabi’s vision extends beyond its new skyline. Its creator, Bashar Masri, is a multi-millionaire, Nablus-born Palestinian tycoon. He sees the city as part of a greater dream, with the bricks and mortar forming the building blocks for an independent state of Palestine.

According to Masri, “Building a city is, in a way, fighting the occupation. It is the more progressive way, it is the professional way, it is the human way and it is the modern way.” A visionary, he is looking beyond the end of the occupation: “It’s not when we will have a state of Palestine, it is what this state of Palestine will be like,” he insists.

Amir Dajani, Deputy Managing Director of Rawabi, told MEMO that he believes that the project is built for today’s politics and “is seen as an iconic project in the Palestinian vision of statehood”.

Getting Rawabi’s construction, which began in 2011, to the finish line is a constant battle. Permission to build a road to the site was only granted last year after several years of waiting. The road runs half a kilometre through Area C, part of the 60 per cent of land under Israeli military control. Permission still has to be renewed annually.

Despite the daily upheavals of investing in a land under military occupation, the first 600 homes in the first phase of construction have already been sold, most probably to “young, internet-savvy, educated English-speakers,” as Rawabi’s commercial manager, Ramzi Jaber, describes its likely clientele. Dajani calls Rawabi a “diverse cross-cultural intervention” representing “the weave of Palestinian walks of life.”

However, whilst Masri defines Rawabi as a “national” project, the national part of the project has been under question. Qatar has covered two thirds of the total investment, with only one third coming from private Palestinian sources. The promised $150 million from the Palestinian Authority to build infrastructure including schools, roads and power facilities has not materialised.

The routes taken by Masri to turn this vision into a reality have not escaped critics. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign slammed him for a “business-as-usual” approach with Israel and accused him of “whitewashing” the occupation. Twelve Israeli companies have been contracted to provide supplies to Rawabi, although the Masri Company has banned them from sourcing anything from settlements, angering Israel’s right wing.

When asked about Rawabi’s critics, Dajani said, “Of course we welcome any criticisms; however we believe that when you look at job creation, economic growth and the fulfilment of the housing shortage, this project strengthens Palestine. We are dealing with restrictions on movement, import controls, no airport, issues of sovereignty, discontinuity, many things. But we are lined up behind this vision.”

The tycoon has also faced heavy criticism after accepting a donation of pine trees in 2009 from the Jewish National Fund, a Zionist organisation that seeks the “redemption” of land and tries to erase traces of Palestinian villages through the planting of fast-growing pines.

Looking at Rawabi, the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Ateret, whose residents have voiced complaints that the close proximity of thousands of new Palestinian homes is an infringement of their human rights, seems not so different. It is hard to see the “Palestine” in this new Palestinian city, with the architecture seeming to mirror the settlements that plague the West Bank. During the planning stages Masri reportedly toured the Modi’in Illit settlement, built on land confiscated from the village of Bil’in, viewing it as a model for the future city.

In the 3D animations advertised on Rawabi’s website, women wearing Western clothes sit outside cafes, whilst men in business suits saunter past. Rawabi seems to reflect Masri’s vision of a new Palestine, but is this part of an innovative fight against the occupation which accommodates the changing demographics of Palestine or one in which Palestinian identity, values and rights are undermined in favour of a growing elite clamouring for something that resembles the malls of the US, at the cost of colluding with the occupation? Is rawabi really part of the resistance effort, as Masri claims, or is it simply whitewashing the Israeli occupation?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.