A New Community Rises In The West Bank ... And It's Not Israeli | KERA News

A New Community Rises In The West Bank ... And It's Not Israeli

Mar 17, 2015
Originally published on March 17, 2015 9:23 am

Palestinian investor Bashar Masri is building an entirely new city in the West Bank. It's a huge investment, with 5,000 new homes for tens of thousands of families. And, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's also a political statement.

As we approached this new city of Rawabi, north of Ramallah, we saw a row of high-rise apartment buildings topped by construction cranes. Scaffolding surrounds the minaret of an incomplete mosque. Nobody has moved in yet.

Masri has had to battle for years, but says he finally has permission to hook up the water system, which is controlled by Israel. The military occupation of the West Bank often complicates Palestinian efforts to build, and this distinctive project was no exception.

The buildings of Rawabi are clad in limestone, and in a stoneyard next to the project, we watched men in hard hats chiseling decorative grooves into stone tiles by hand, one by one by one.

Masri has done as much work as possible locally in order to make it harder for Israel's government to block materials from being brought in.

Some foreign assistance was required, though — namely, financing. In honor of the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which has invested in the project and others in the Palestinian areas, the planned city's main street is shaped like the capital letter Q.

Inside the Q are offices and stores, while the outside is lined with multistory stone apartment buildings. Laser lights are planned, and they would be visible from an Israeli settlement, a row of houses on the next ridge line over. There's also a Roman-style amphitheater, large enough to seat thousands.

Masri is part of a wealthy and well-traveled Palestinian family. He says he has borrowed ideas from different places he's lived around the world.

"I lived in Virginia, so I know Reston, Va. So you probably will find quite a few things from Reston, Va., here," he says, referring to the planned community in suburban Washington, D.C.

Masri says he also lived in Cairo — and, for a time, inside an Israeli prison. He opposes Israel's military control of the West Bank, and his real estate development is inevitably an extension of that opposition.

"I'm not saying Rawabi is a political act. I'm saying that our daily life is a political act, whatever we do here," says Masri. "Anybody that builds in Palestine, anybody that creates a new company, a new factory, is a political act, as well, of course. Of course, their goal may be to make money and there's nothing wrong with that. But it is a political act because it creates jobs, it makes Palestinians stay on their land, and we are being pushed out."

The ultimate goal, shared by many Palestinians as well as the White House, is a permanent place for Palestinians.

"I am a strong believer that the Palestinian nation is in the making," says Masri.

U.S. officials have publicly spoken in favor of Rawabi. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the construction site while he was a U.S. senator.

That's not to say that U.S. support has made the project easy to complete.

"This particular project is — very difficult to make money on a project like this," he says.

Israel has never formally opposed the project, but Israeli decisions delayed it. Until the very day of our visit, Masri was prevented from building a water pipe over land controlled by Israel's military.

Finally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arranged for the water hookup, in what was seen as a friendly gesture to Americans just before his controversial trip to address the Congress earlier this month.

The yearslong fight over water is a reminder that Palestinians have lived almost a half-century under Israeli military rule.

The Palestinians do have their own government, the Palestinian Authority, but Masri was equally frustrated with those officials. He says the group didn't keep a promise to build schools and roads for Rawabi.

"They signed the agreement and I think they should have delivered," he says. "Whenever I talk to them they say, 'Oh, Bashar, we need schools in other areas, we need roads in other areas.' Well, I think we should have gotten at least our fair share, proportional to the expected community in the next five years."

We were speaking with Masri in Rawabi's giant showroom, which has a view of the city center, as well as bank offices right on site to arrange financing. During our visit several families passed through.

When we met some of the buyers, we learned that several are not from the West Bank, but rather live inside Israel, and are Israeli citizens.

Sofian and Fahimeh Mowassi are Arab citizens of the Jewish state. About 20 percent of Israel's population are Arab Israelis — or, as many call themselves, Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Fahimeh say they are buying a second home because Jewish Israelis are not comfortable living with Arabs. "We don't feel they accept us," she says, adding, "it's nice to come here, among our people."

Fahimeh stresses she didn't want to engage in a deep political dispute, but there's no avoiding politics when it comes to real estate here. Jews were committing a political act when they began settling in what became Israel more than a century ago, in search of a nation to call home. Israelis have been committing another political act by settling in the West Bank since they captured land in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Rawabi represents a drive to establish a national home for Palestinians. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, nothing is more political than where and how you choose to live.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And on this Israeli election day, we have a reminder that some people vote with mortar and stone. The single biggest question facing Israel may be its long-running conflict with Palestinians. We've reported in recent days how many Israelis offered their answer by building settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan. Palestinians are building on the West Bank, too.

So we've just passed the stone entrance sign that says in English and Arabic, Rawabi, the name of this planned community.

We were driving a road that weaved through the hills outside Jerusalem. Our destination was a Palestinian real estate development. It's a huge investment and a political statement.

A line of Palestinian flags at the top of a hill.

A Palestinian investor is building an entirely new city, 5,000 homes for tens of thousands of people. Nobody's moved in yet, but the investor says he finally has Israeli permission to hook up the water and open.

And now the city itself has come into view, a row of high-rise apartment buildings topped by construction cranes. Scaffolding surrounds the minaret of an incomplete mosque.

The buildings of Rawabi are clad in limestone. And in a stone yard nearby, we watched men in hard hats chiseling decorative grooves into stone tiles by hand one by one by one.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHISELING TILE)

INSKEEP: The stone comes from a quarry beside the project. The developer's done as much work as possible locally. He wanted to make it harder for Israel's government to cut off materials from being brought in.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

INSKEEP: We got a driving tour of Rawabi's downtown from a company employee named Jack Nasser.

JACK NASSER: The town center, we call it the Q center because it looks like the letter Q.

INSKEEP: Yes, the main street is shaped like the capital letter Q. The inside of the Q is offices and stores. The outside is lined with multi-story stone apartment buildings. The Q is not by chance.

NASSER: And it's a Q for Qatar.

INSKEEP: This honors the Persian Gulf emirate which invested in this project. These tall buildings represent the latest of many ways Qatar has used its natural gas wealth to project influence.

NASSER: And there on top of that, we're going to put laser lights. We're going to play, like, shapes in the sky.

INSKEEP: Laser lights that would be visible from an Israeli settlement, a row of houses on the next ridgeline over.

NASSER: Now we're going to the best part of Rawabi. This is my favorite.

INSKEEP: You've got a big smile on your face.

NASSER: Yes, I love this place.

INSKEEP: We left the car and stepped on stage at a Roman-style amphitheater large enough to seat thousands.

NASSER: This is the new Palestine we are building. That's how we build our state, our nation.

INSKEEP: We're looking at all of these stone seats, as in a Roman or Greek theater here in the half circle, with Roman columns at the back, much like ancient Roman theaters did have.

NASSER: Yes. You know, it's part of our history. The Romans, they fight Palestine for years.

INSKEEP: Then we hurried back up the hill because the author of this monster project was waiting to talk with us. Bashar Masri wore a blazer with a shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He's part of a wealthy and well-traveled Palestinian family. He says he's borrowed ideas from different places he has lived around the world.

BASHAR MASRI: I lived in Virginia, so I know Reston, Va. So you probably will find quite a few things from Reston, Va., here.

INSKEEP: Masri says he also lived in Cairo and for a time, inside an Israeli prison. He opposed Israel's military control of the West Bank. His West Bank real estate development is inevitably an extension of that opposition.

MASRI: I'm not saying Rawabi is a political act. I'm saying that our daily life is a political act, whatever we do here. Anybody that builds in Palestine, anybody that creates a new company, a new factory, is a political act, as well, of course. Of course their goal may be to make money and there's nothing wrong with that. But it is a political act because it creates jobs, it makes Palestinians stay on their land, and we are being pushed out.

INSKEEP: Are you nation building?

MASRI: One hundred percent, absolutely.

INSKEEP: Although the project has not been easy to complete.

Is the business model sound?

MASRI: Hardly. This particular project - is very difficult to make money on a project like this.

INSKEEP: U.S. officials have publicly spoken in favor of Rawabi. John Kerry visited the construction site while he was a U.S. senator. Israel has never formally opposed the project, but Israeli decisions delayed it. Until the very day of our visit, Masri was prevented from building a water pipe over land controlled by Israel's military. Finally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arranged for the water hookup. The prime minister was seen as making a friendly gesture to Americans just before his controversial trip to address the U.S. Congress.

So you have a paper in hand that says you have approval?

MASRI: Yes.

INSKEEP: They can't take it away from you?

MASRI: Well, they could do anything they want. They are the military occupation.

INSKEEP: The years-long fight over water is a reminder - Palestinians have lived almost half a century under an Israeli government for which they cannot vote. Palestinians do have their own government, the Palestinian Authority. But Masri was equally frustrated by that government. He says the Palestinian Authority did not keep a promise to build schools and roads for Rawabi.

MASRI: Whenever I talk to them, they say, oh, Bashar, we need schools in other areas, we need roads in other areas. Well, I think we should have gotten at least our fair share, proportional to the expected community in the next five years.

INSKEEP: I want to make absolutely clear on this - they signed an agreement that said they would deliver goods, such as schools. You're saying they never built a school. You're building the school that I saw down the hill?

MASRI: That's correct. You're absolutely right. Now we also understand that they're broke. But the little money they had, it should've had a better distribution.

INSKEEP: We were speaking with Masri in Rawabi's giant showroom. It features a view of the city center, as well as bank offices right on site to arrange financing. Apartments may cost around $130,000 or so. During our visit, several families passed through. A woman exclaimed mumtaz, mumtaz - excellent. When we met some of the buyers, we discovered something. Several were not from the West Bank, but rather live inside Israel.

Are you Israeli citizens?

SOFIAN MOWASSI: Yes. We are citizens, yes. We have two nationalities. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Sofian and Fahimeh Mowassi are Arab citizens of the Jewish state. About 20 percent of Israel's population are Arab Israelis - or as many call themselves, Palestinian citizens of Israel. Fahimeh says there is a reason they're buying a second home on the West Bank.

FAHIMEH MOWASSI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "We live in Israel among people who do not feel comfortable among us," she said. "We don't feel they accept us. It's nice to come here," she said, "among our people." As she spoke, Fahimeh stressed she didn't want to engage in a deep political dispute, but there was no avoiding politics. There can't be when it comes to real estate here, as we've learned this past week of reports.

Jews were committing a political act when they began settling more than a century ago in what became Israel. They wanted a national home. Israelis had been committing another political act by settling in the West Bank since 1967. Rawabi represents a drive to establish a national home for Palestinians. We were in a place where nothing is more political than where and how you choose to live. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.