Jonathan Russo

Rawabi: The Palestinian wonder of the world

A visit to Rawabi, a city under construction near Ramallah, offers a vision of a hopeful and prosperous future

Rawabi, the largest Palestinian real estate project in recent times, is the newest city being built by Palestinians on their land in the West Bank. Rawabi can be called the first Palestinian wonder of the world. I went on a tour there a few days ago and had lunch with Rawabi’s visionary developer, Bashar Masri. Masri is a man of intense energy; he paces when he talks on the phone. He is gracious and radiates sincerity and decency. He is also very successful, with investments in over 30 Palestinian companies.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Rawabi, and with every passing day of Islamic violence in the Middle East and Europe the political significance of Rawabi becomes even more profound.

The newest Palestinian metropolitan hub is an impressive city being built for up to 40,000 people. It lies just north of Ramallah. The scale of the city is hard to describe. Scores of towers for residences, offices, retail and cultural institutions carved out of stone loom above parched hills. Israeli settlements of questionable legality can be seen on the hillside ridges. Tel Aviv is clearly visible, being only some 50 kilometers away.

Rawabi has it all. Master planners from the United States and local Palestinians have incorporated every known aspect of city planning into Rawabi. It’s visually stunning, the beige and golden stone in an endless array of shades look at once ancient and modern. The site planners broke up the layout of the buildings so that it feels like the city grew organically with the progression of time. World class energy conservation, transportation networks, and street-level experiences have all been carefully orchestrated. There are scores of apartment choices. You can live in one of 23 current neighborhoods. Residents can choose from hundreds of options regarding apartment kitchens, fixtures and decorative accents. And it is all on an interactive computer program in the spacious and elegant information center. When you’re done selecting everything for your apartment, there are banks – and in a first for Palestinians, mortgage brokers – right there to close the deal.

I could go on about all the different development aspects, but there is a far more important feature of Rawabi that cries out to be addressed. Rawabi is the proof, the Exhibit A, that the Palestinians have the ability, the will and the desire to lead the same lives as Israelis. Rawabi is the anti-Gaza. Just as the Gulf States have built world class cities for themselves, proving that they can be as modern as Americans, Europeans or Asians, so too have the Palestinians with Rawabi.

There will be lots of shopping in Rawabi. One might say that this is a tale of two malls for two peoples: Israelis are mall-crazy and they abound in Israel. Now it is the Palestinian’s turn.

While Masri tells me that anyone can live in Rawabi, one must agree to actually reside there. He does not want vacant apartments bought simply as investments. Rawabi is being built for those that want a modern, Western-style life. It is being designed for those who want a beautiful apartment with comfortable furniture, nice clothes, dinners out, movies and concerts. The amphitheater where those concerts will be held is one of the largest in the Middle East, seating 12,000.

I was in Gaza a week before the Israelis withdrew their army and evacuated the settlements. Then I hoped that once the Palestinians were in possession of the enclave, they would make it a “Singapore on the Mediterranean.” That was not meant to be. Instead, Gaza degenerated into martyrdom, rockets, kidnapping and misery. This enabled Israel, and frankly the rational world, to have an “I told you so” moment.

Rawabi is the answer to all of that.

The in-your-face consumerism of Rawabi, with its retail opportunities and co-educational partnerships with Harvard, Oxford and Northwestern (amongst others) suggest that Rawabi will advance Palestinian society at a very high level.

As in all developments of this scale there are setbacks. The most recent one – until just days ago – was water. There had been a several month delay in getting Rawabi connected to the Israeli water system. This became a very big, front page issue in Israel, and a lot of international pressure was applied on Israel to supply Rawabi with water. Haaretz, an important Israeli newspaper, published an entire editorial in which they implored Israel authorities to “turn on the water.” When I met Masri, just several days before Israel announced it would connect Rawabi to its water supply, he was concerned but not panicked. He told me that “It will happen. The water will flow. At every turn it has been difficult to get the Israelis’ help, but it will happen, we are working on it.” He was right.

For the sake of the Palestinians, but also the Israelis and even the world at large, the success of Rawabi will signify something profound. It will show that Palestinians can be like Israelis: smart, ambitious, hardworking and profoundly modern. Let’s just say it: moving into Rawabi is about kitchen cabinet choices, not shrapnel bombs. It is about what to have for dinner, not who to run over. It is about financing a mortgage, not murdering a rabbi.

I told Masri I thought the physical scale of Rawabi was “pharaonic,” a term I like to use to describe something of epic proportions. He gave me a pleased smile at the comment. What I did not say was that I thought his accomplishment was pharaonic in a political and cultural sense too. I could live in Rawabi. It is beautiful and has all the perks of living in a nice town in the United States. It is the heroic achievement of a displaced people that for too long have put their children’s lives in abeyance in the false hope of throwing the Israelis into the sea. That is not going to happen, and in a very real way Rawabi says that directly to the Palestinians. It also says that to the world. Two malls for two peoples may seem like a joke, but it would be a much better reality for this tiny, divided land than the one in which it has been stuck for decades.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.