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Building Rawabi
Building Rawabi
Maurizio Molinari

RAWABI — Qatari flags, Italian kitchens, WiFi in the streets, green public transport, and apartments for 40,000 inhabitants: Welcome to Rawabi, the first Palestinian city built from scratch.

Anwar Hussein, a 48-year-old professor at the University of Bir Zeit, is among the first "pioneer" families who, now that Israeli authorities have finally agreed to connect Rawabi to the "Mekorot" national water network, are just beginning to arrive.

He paid $140,000 for a four-room apartment overlooking the valleys of the West Bank. Hussein lived for a long time in the U.S. state of Arizona and in Canada. Now he's back in Palestine, and getting ready to move into a home that, in his words, "will guarantee a high-quality of life."

The development, which already has 623 residential properties, caters specifically to upper-middle class Palestinians. Another future resident, Isa Rishmaui, a 40-year-old entrepreneur from Bethlehem, decided to invest the proceeds of his tourist company here "because Rawabi is the only Palestinian city in the 21st century."

The city is a 30-minute drive from the center of Ramallah, up in the hills, which, in Arabic, are called "Rawabi." The project dates back to 2007, when Qatar's Diar Real Estate Financial Investment Company decided to invest $1 billion to create a hi-tech city out of nothing. Developers designed it to look like the suburb of a North American metropolis. Their aim is to attract Palestinians from abroad, professionals with medium to high incomes, and young families ready to invest.

"We found ourselves facing many obstacles but the results are right before our eyes," says Bashar Masri, CEO of Massar International, one of the project's partner companies. Masri points to a half-finished shopping mall that will boast more than 200 shops and 1,000 parking spaces. The mall is located right in the heart of the city, which is organized around circular streets with elegant buildings and modern-furnished homes.

The developers have already built approximately 1 million square meters worth of real estate. They plan to add another 5 million before they're done. Still on the to-do list are an amphitheater for night shows, six restaurants, five banks, schools, a soccer field, several parks, and more than 2,000 trees that will line the roads where, aside from the residents, only "green" local transport will circulate.

Rawabi defies the perceptions of existing Palestinian cities: there isn't a bazaar like in Hebron, a fruit market like in Jericho, or a governmental center like in Ramallah. Nor is there the primordial link of a village territory or hamula (big family) that has lived there for centuries. Instead, there is a show room displaying 3-D models of for-sale apartments and to-be-built shops.

Amir Dajani, manager of the Bayt Real Estate Investment Company, says the developers have managed to avoid the kind of "political taboos" that one might expect in this area. "We bought the land from 2,000 Palestinian families, employ 10,000 Arab workers, and every year we purchase $100 million worth of building materials from Israeli companies," he says.

But it's also true that the capital for this massive venture all comes form a single private lender in Qatar, the emirate accused of supporting Hamas in Gaza. Perhaps for that reason Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has so far refrained from expressing any kind of public support for Rawabi.

Relations with Israel, in the meantime, are erratic. Benjamin Netanyahu's government waited until March, on the eve of his visit to Washington, D.C., to finally agree to connect the city to the Israeli water network. Road construction is another sticky issue. "Once we have reached 2,000 families, we will need larger roads through territories administered by Israel," says Masri.

The Massar International CEO is careful, nevertheless, to downplay any potential conflicts that the project might generate. He prefers instead to focus on Rawabi's attributes, specifically on the fact that it will be "the first upper-middle class Palestinian city." Buyers will mostly be young couples. Masri expects that most of the women in those couples will work, and that about 10% will be Christian.

"Investing here means betting on the future," says saleswoman Shadia Jarafar, a 27-year-old from Hebron who wears a purple shirt and tight pants.

Masri's vision is grander still. "If we succeed," he says, "there will be other Rawabis in Palestine and they will become the backbone of this independent state."

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