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Brand new Palestinian city opens its doors after years of delay

Construction of Rawabi – a billion dollar-development – was help up for years as planners waited for Israel to first approve the building of an access road, and then to give the go-ahead for the planned city to receive water.
Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city inside the West Bank, is opening the doors to its first residents this month after years of construction and delays. The US$1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) development north-west of Ramallah will eventually be home to 25,000 people. Below, developer Bashar Masri. Kate Shuttleworth/The National
Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city inside the West Bank, is opening the doors to its first residents this month after years of construction and delays. The US$1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) development north-west of Ramallah will eventually be home to 25,000 people. Below, developer Bashar Masri. Kate Shuttleworth/The National

RAWABI, WEST BANK // The first Palestinian planned city in the West Bank has finally opened its doors after years of delay in securing permission from Israel to connect to its water supply and for approval to build access roads.

Rawabi – a high-tech residential city, located 9 kilometres north-west of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – will eventually house 25,000 people in 5,000 apartments and town houses. The first keys were handed over to 640 Palestinian families at the beginning of September.

Some of the families had waited more than two years to move into Rawabi since buying their homes, due to the previous lack of water supply.

The brainchild of Palestinian-American multimillionaire Bashar Masri, who is in his fifties, the Rawabi development is aimed at upper-middle class Palestinian families.

The US$1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) development offers impressive facilities such as a 15,000-person Roman-style amphitheatre, a football stadium and sports club, schools, cinemas, shops and parks.

Among the first residents to move into Rawabi this month will be a professor of chemistry at Bir Zeit University, Talal Shahwan, along with his wife and their three children.

Their 235-square metre apartment – which cost approximately $160,000 – has three en suite bedrooms and four balconies, some overlooking Tel Aviv.

“It’s a dream to be part of a new Palestinian city. Rawabi is offering a high-standard of living, it’s architecturally designed and the fact that it’s the first Palestinian city outside of existing traditional cities has attracted us. If you go to downtown Ramallah, the prices are very high and inaccessible,” said Prof Shahwan from the third-floor balcony of his new apartment.

“We will be the first signs of life in Rawabi but we are still waiting, sorting a few things with our furniture before we can fully move in.”

In March this year, before the Israeli general election that month and on the eve of his visit to the US congress in Washington, the office of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally conceded that the Israeli water authority would connect Rawabi to the Jewish state’s water supply.

Before this announcement, Rawabi’s planners had been stymied in efforts to connect to water supplies for over two years.

But this was not the first time that the project had faced major delays: between 2008 – when the project first began – and 2013, construction was held up when Israel would not approve the building of an access road to the site that could accommodate heavy lorries.

Such a road was eventually built in 2013, though a road that will allow easy travel between Rawabi and the neighbouring towns of Bir Zeit and Ramallah is still needed, the city’s founder and developer Bashar Masri says.

Last June, with the project well into its sixth year and no sign of Israel approving a connection to its water supply, Mr Masri said that he was forced to not only scale back the development from a planned 40,000 residents to 25,000, but to halt construction altogether.

The site looked like a ghost town, the real estate magnate told The National, adding that he suffered losses in excess of $65 million on the project. Construction resumed in March, shortly after the announcement that Rawabi finally would be connected to Israel’s water supply.

According to Mr Masri, the delays by Israeli officials had turned buyers away from Rawabi.

“Initially we had a euphoria of buyers. Then when we had the delay problems due to the road and the water, many people were turned off and we had hundreds of cancellations,” he said.

“[Sales] picked up again as we resolved the water problem but not to the [level of] euphoria we had before ... We believe by next year we will bring that euphoria back.”

Construction of Rawabi began in 2010 and did not require Israeli approval because it was built in the part of the West Bank that is under full Palestinian control, known as Area A, which makes up 11 per cent of the territory. However, any access roads to Rawabi needed to pass through the 60 per cent of the West Bank that is under total Israeli military control, known as Area C. This meant that they had to be approved by Israel.

In 2013, five years after Mr Masri applied for a permit to build a double-laned access road to Rawabi, a permit was finally granted – but only for a single-laned road.

“We have had hardly any breakthroughs in the project and we only got that little... road after five years of struggling. We got a road that looks nice, like a country road, but it’s certainly not a road to sustain a quarter of a city, let alone a full city,” Mr Masri said.

Getting Rawabi connected to water has also been arduous, Mr Masri said, despite a pipeline already supplying an Israeli settlement just half a kilometre away.

“We have to beg and negotiate and put pressure on the Israeli government to get water to [Rawabi], and we’re not bringing people from the Moon,” he said. “We’re just moving people from one area of the West Bank to another area, so we’re not affecting the total consumption of water.”

Although Rawabi is now connected to Israel’s water supply, Mr Masri says that the volume of water that the city receives will need to increase if the population is to grow beyond 640 families.

In 2008, the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed a public-private partnership with Mr Masri’s company, committing to facilitate and pay for the infrastructure of schools, health care facilities, roads and waste water treatment plants in Rawabi – but none of it was ever built.

“The PA have been verbally extremely supportive, they have been extremely happy with the project at large but this support hasn’t materialised into any kind of financial contribution,” said Amir Dajani, managing director of the Rawabi project. In fact, he said, Mr Masri’s Bayti Real Estate Investment Company has had to absorb the cost of what the PA committed to, which amounted to $150m.

“We understand they’re (the PA) bankrupt and cash-strapped but we know strategically they should allocate some resources to Rawabi,” said Mr Masri from his glass-walled showroom, situated on the top floor of a two-storey building in Rawabi.

When asked if the Rawabi project was targeted at only the elite, Mr Masri replied, smiling, but with an underlying tone of seriousness: “We are a grand people and we deserve a grand place.”

He added that the true success of Rawabi could only be judged when a second Rawabi was built, saying that he was set to announce early next year the building of a new housing development project in East Jerusalem.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: September 17, 2015 04:00 AM

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