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 , Staff writer

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    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.
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    Project leader Bashir Masri (second from right) of Bayti Real Estate and Investment Co., reviews blueprints for Rawabi with architects on the project.
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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.

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.”

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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.

But many hurdles remain, most of them leftovers from the controversial A, B, and C map that is the legacy of the Oslo Peace Accords. A full 92 percent of Rawabi is in Area A – under complete Palestinian control – and the other 8 percent is in Area B – a territory whose civilian affairs are run by the PA, but where Israel maintains overall security control.

The key challenge is the need for a new access road from Ramallah, and here it will run into C territory – the part of the West Bank where Israel has total control.
Masri has been trying for months to get the Israelis to agree to allow for the creation of the road. It’s not by chance that there’s a strip of Area C running through a cluster of Palestinian villages. Nearby is the Israeli settlement of Ateret.

“I’m asking for a new road and that the road be under Palestinian jurisdiction,” says Masri. “We already have technical approval, but to get the authorization, it will take an Israeli government decision. We’re optimistic that we’ll get it, and that’s why we started construction. I can’t imagine why any wise person in their right mind would stop this project.”

But earlier in April, about 60 settlers protested at the site, saying Rawabi was an attempt to create territorial contiguity with Ramallah, the West Bank metropolis that is about 3-1/2 miles to the south. The city’s construction would prevent settlers in Ateret from linking to the larger Ofra settlement to the east, settler leaders complained, and would create a de facto Palestinian state on the ground.

But "facts on the ground" is exactly the strategy that moderates in the PA have mapped out. Mr. Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, told the Monitor last Novem­ber that he intends to establish a Palestinian state by the end of 2011.

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In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published April 14, he seemed to move up that date to summer 2011.

A template for others?

To be sure, not everyone will be able to afford a home in tony Rawabi. With a housing shortage of 200,000 units across the West Bank, says George Rafidi, a sales and marketing representative for Bayti, it made sense to go for the middle-class market. If Rawabi is a success, he envisions planning a “Rawabi II” in less privileged areas such as Jenin or Qalqilya. “I own a home in Ramallah, but I still signed up to buy here because I think eventually it will be the place to be,” says Mr. Rafidi, who lived and studied in Texas before returning home a few years ago. “In Ramallah there are no parks for our kids to play in, so they run around in the street.

I see Rawabi not as a bedroom community for the people who live there, but as a destination for the whole West Bank.”

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

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