A West Bank town that has the look and feel of Mamilla Mall? Welcome to Rawabi — about 9 kilometers from Ramallah.
We were a small group from Melbourne, Australia and we visited Rawabi in March 2018. We lunched with the charismatic founder and builder of the city, Bashar Masri. Masri is an American, Palestinian entrepreneur with a background in chemical engineering and management consulting. Rawabi is his brainchild and putting his money where his mouth is, he invested his own funds along with the support of Qatar, which invested over a billion dollars to build the city. Masri tells us he had set up over seventy meetings with potential funders and the meeting with Qatar was his first. They invested almost the entire amount needed on the condition they were the only investor. It is the first public city in the Middle East built entirely by the private sector with no contribution from government.
Housing is in short supply in the West Bank. Masri explains, “70% of the population is below the age of 30. Unemployment is at 20%. The aim is to build a modern, best practice city in sustainability and planning. Construction began in 2010 and will provide 10,000 jobs in constructions over ten years.”
The first families located there in 2014. The objective is that within 7-10 years, the city is to be home to 40,000 residents from all socio-economic backgrounds. It’s a slow start. In 2018, 4000 residents have moved in.
Basri’s vision is for the Palestinians to piggy-back on the success of high-tech in Israel and bring high tech to Rawabi. Israel has a shortage of mid-level tech experts. There’s a gulf between the positions required in high-tech — about 15,000 and those being trained in the field — about 4,000. Basri’s vision is for Palestinians to help fill the gap. He sees economic security and prosperity of the Palestinians as the pathway to peace.
It hasn’t been easy sailing. “There have been constant obstacles to construction”, Masri states. “It took four years to pave a private road as we needed permission from the Israeli government.” They only recently received temporary approval after years of back channel negotiations. Then development was delayed 18 months because the city was denied access to water. Politics intervened while Masri was nation building.
“But an advantage of being a nation in the making,” Masri continues, “is that it is dynamic. It only took two years to obtain approval from the Palestinian Authority to build the city compared with a decade it would likely take from developed countries.”
And other neighbouring cities are taking notice — it is a clean and well-preserved city. Residents of other cities are starting demand the same of where they live.
The peace process has been at an impasse for years. Fed up with the political malaise, progressive thinkers in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities are taking matters into their own hands. Indeed, the disheartening state of affairs which is Israeli/Palestinian politics is being cast aside or even ignored by many players on the ground. Many Israeli’s are developing and solving problems with scant regard to political issues. You constantly hear the catch-cry: “we cannot wait for peace to take action improving social cohesion.”
Both sides, Israeli and Palestinian understand that the rising economic prosperity of the Palestinians is the key to encourage moderation and eventually peaceful co-existence. Chemi Peres, son of the late former Prime Minister and President, Shimon Peres, is one of those progressive thinkers: “Both Rawabi and Ramallah are emerging as Middle Eastern innovation hubs with a new generation of entrepreneurs. We need to shape a new future for the young generation in the region. The Startup Nation can help transition the Middle East to a new era of collaboration, entrepreneurship and innovation — a Startup Region.”
The recent and ongoing border clashes alongside Israel and Gaza are evidence of the dichotomy between Gazan and West Bank populations. Palestinians in the West Bank are in the main, getting on with their lives. They see themselves and their trajectories quite separate to those who live in Gaza.
It is said that the only thing more dangerous than an opponent with unlimited resources is an opponent with nothing to lose. Basri is aiming to ensure that in Rawabi there is something too valuable to lose.
As I left Rawabi and then Israel a few days later, I contemplated the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald:
…the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
The first-rate intelligence of many Israelis and Palestinians is paying heed to that.