Palestinian Hills are alive with the sound of construction

Against all odds, a flagship Palestinian city is rising up on the West Bank

Rawabi is the first new town to be built by Palestinians on Palestinian soil for as long as anyone can remember. Doubting Palestinians, Israelis opposed to the project, and sceptical observers all see it as an expensive aberration on the tortured landscape of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Palestinians call Rawabi a $1 billion white elephant and an attempt to "normalise" the Israeli occupation because Israel had to grant permission for its creation and construction, and Israeli firms provided raw materials.

Rawabi has also stirred resentment in the neighbourhood: it is built on 1,557 acres of land confiscated under a decree issued by president Mahmoud Abbas in 2009, in the face of opposition from some landowners.

Israelis from the nearby Ateret settlement harass and throw rocks at Palestinians working at the site and tear down Palestinian flags. Although construction began in 2010, the Israeli government decided to supply Rawabi with water only this March.

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Israel can, at any moment, turn off the taps as well as the electricity, and block the sole rough road to Rawabi.

Still, Rawabi (“Hills”) is a reality. The city, custom-built for a population of 25,000 with the option of expanding to 40,000, is rising on West Bank hilltops, 20 minutes drive from the Palestinians’ West Bank administrative centre at Ramallah.

One man’s dream

Rawabi is the dream of one man: dual US-Palestinian citizen Bashar Masri, who is funding the project from his own fortune and hundreds of millions of dollars from the

Qatar Investment Authority

.

The Palestinian Authority did not have the $140 million (€127 million) it had promised to sink into Rawabi's external infrastructure, so money has been, at times, tight.

Rawabi sits on two ridges from which the golden, grey and cream stones cladding the buildings are quarried. Stone blocks are shaped here. Cement is mixed on site.

Palestinian blacksmiths and carpenters come from all over the West Bank. The labour force “works three shifts and we have enough material on site so that if the road is closed, construction can continue,” said Asma Salamah, our guide.

When completed, Rawabi will have 23 distinct neighbourhoods, three schools at all levels, a mosque, a church, shops, a commercial centre, restaurants and cafes, cinemas and a golden stone Roman amphitheatre where audiences can attend plays and music performed against the backdrop of the purple-green hills.

Streets are paved with red, black and grey bricks. In addition, each neighbourhood has its own parking arrangements, which my companion – who had considered buying a flat – says are inadequate.

The display apartments we are shown are spacious and comfortable, if very similar to each other. Buyers can choose between different floor tiles, kitchens and other built-in fittings, but the range is limited. Damp has blistered the paint in the building we visit.

5,000 apartments

Amir Dajani

is deputy manager of the Rawabi project. He earned his BA at

Trinity College

Dublin. “We are starting the paperwork in the next couple of weeks for the 5,000 apartments. We need to make certain that all systems are ready.”

He says construction was delayed for 18 months due to Israel’s refusal to allow the contractors to lay a 1.1km pipe for water across “Area C”, the 62 per cent of the West Bank under total Israeli control.

Israel’s Makarot water company and its Palestinian counterpart have agreed to supply Rawabi, which will use recycled water for irrigation and agriculture, as well as provide surrounding villages with grey water for crops.

“Apartments cost between $80,000 and $220,000 [€72,500-€200,000] depending on size and location,” says Dajani. Some 650 are said to have been sold; prices are 25 per cent less than in Ramallah and one-third or less than in East Jerusalem. At the demonstration hall, potential investors can choose among four banks, including the Arab Islamic Bank, to arrange mortgages.

Prove viability

Everyone at Rawabi is enthusiastic, but the town still has to prove its viability.

Mahdi Abdel Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, a think tank, calls Rawabi "a big headache". He says the western- styled apartments do not reflect the culture of Palestinians. Mid-level Palestinian Authority employees "who can buy in instalments" will live there, he says.

According to former Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath, "Rawabi is in a bizarre situation: it is the last attempt to make economic peace between Palestinians and Israelis."

The city, Shaath said, is being completed “at a time there can be no economic peace because the peace process is dead”. Series concluded.