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Architect eyes tony Palestinian city with eco-mindset and fast Internet

Bashar Masri is spearheading the first planned Palestinian city, pending Israeli approval. His young team – who order pizza and work through lunch – envision a 21st-century city conscious of its ecological impact and equipped with a fiber-optic network.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / May 14, 2010

This 3D models shows Rawabi, Arabic for hills, which will be the first Palestinian city built to a master plan. It offers a tidy alternative for upwardly mobile young professionals.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Zum

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Rawabi, West Bank

The state Palestinians dream of may not actually exist by next summer, as the Palestinian premier recently promised. But at the very least, a city upon a hill may have started to rise, with ground already being broken in the first planned Palestinian community – and the first new Palestinian city to be built in centuries.

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Rawabi, which means “hills” in Arabic, is sited on the scenic green slopes north of Bir Zeit, a village north of Ramallah and home to prestigious Bir Zeit University. And its creators are hoping to tap that cachet to lure a high-end, well-educated populace, 70 percent of whom will be young college-educated families with 1.5 children.

“It is a change, culturally,” says Bashar Masri, the driving force behind Rawabi and the managing director of the Bayti Real Estate and Investment Co., which is overseeing Rawabi’s development. “Rawabi will be relatively cleaner and internally safer than what we see in most Palestinian cities, with cozy places to walk, pleasant cafes and restaurants, modern offices, and lots of green spaces in between.”

IN PICTURES: The Israeli separation barrier: A West Bank wall

In addition to the 6,000 units – 1,000 classified as luxury – there will be a commercial and cultural center and even an amphitheater.

Foreign investor footed $700 million bill

It’s an “if you build it, they will come” approach – one that represents a leap of faith into the Palestinian future. And when Mr. Masri, originally from Nablus and educated in Egypt and the United States, first began developing the concept in 2007, he knew he would need foreign investors. What he didn’t expect is that one major investor would come forward – Qatar Diar, a real estate company owned by the Qatari government – with the entire $700 million-plus he needed.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also became a fan of Rawabi, which, on a clear day, will command a view of the Tel Aviv skyline. That helped Masri push his plan through the sluggish bureaucracy of the Palestinian Authority (PA). And Masri notes that members of the Israeli business community and Israeli President Shimon Peres have offered support.

“For every negative comment raised by Israelis, we’ve gotten 100 positive ones,” Masri says in his office in Ramallah, itself looking like a page out of a state-of-the-art design magazine. On the wall is an eye-catching painting by Israeli artist Irit Hadani of a colorful line of trees. “I like it because it feels light and optimistic,” Masri says.

Complications from the Oslo Accords

Indeed, an energizing thread of optimism runs through the Ramallah offices where the city is being mapped out. The project’s principal architect, Raphael Samach, came here on behalf of the New York firm Aecom more than two years ago. His young team – who order pizza and work straight through lunch – have in mind a firmly 21st-century city conscious of its ecological impact and equipped with a fiber-optic network.