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Israel

At Home With Munib al-Masri, The World's Richest Palestinian

A confidant of Yasser Arafat, al-Masri made billions in oil and gas. But unlike some other super-rich Palestinians, he chose to remain close to his roots in Nablus, where he built a true palace and meets with Hamas and Fatah leaders alike in search of rec

Al-Masri in front of his palace above Nablus
Al-Masri in front of his palace above Nablus
Laurent Zecchini

NABLUS - Munib al-Masri offers a tour of his olive grove, the Islamic gardens with fountains under the stone arch transported from the South of France and the enclosure that houses his gazelles. Comfortable in his Bermuda shorts and faded shirt, al-Masri walks and talks through his 24 hectares of property with no shortage of eloquence or charm. He is accompanied by his eight-year-old grandson, whom he's put in charge of answering his cell phone.

The air is crisp at the top of Mount Gerazim. Al-Masri says it is always like this, even when the summer heat is crushing the rest of the West Bank.

He gestures toward the surrounding hills. His neighbors include a Jewish settlement and an early-warning center for the Israeli army. In the valley below is Nablus, dubbed the "terrorism capital" during the second Intifada, and formerly known as Shechem of the Samaritans and of the Jews, as frequently mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy. The small Arab-Jewish community of roughly 700 people lives on this still-sacred mount believed to have been spared during the deluge.

The temple that was built in 330 B.C. no longer exists, most likely destroyed by the Byzantine emperor Xenon. In its place, al-Masri has built his own personal temple, an extravagant folly inspired by the 16th-century Palladian villas outside Venice. The cupola, which resembles the one in St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican and the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, can be seen for miles away.

Al-Masri loathes the term "billionaire," not to mention the title of the "world's richest Palestinian." When confronted with the fact that serious people estimate his fortune at around $5 billion, he says he doesn't know how much he's worth. "I have worked a lot," he says. "I gave much to Palestine. I am a simple man, and am rich from being a Palestinian nationalist."

A close companion of Yasser Arafat, al-Masri made his fortune in oil and gas. He is the head of the Padico investment holding group, which controls 35 companies that include the sectors of telecommunications, construction, tourism, energy, environment, banking, finance and agriculture. He also founded the Edgo group (industry, commerce, health, education, distribution, etc.), which oversees 29 companies across the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America.

A philanthropist, an art sponsor, tapped three times to serve as Palestinian prime minister – he refused each time – and an intermediary between Fatah and Hamas, al-Masri has lived many lives. At 77, he now wants to focus on Palestinian reconciliation, and "doesn't want to die" before witnessing the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

American wife, Byzantine church

Born in Nablus, he studied in the United States earning a degree in petroleum geology at the University of Texas, where he met his American wife, Angela. It was there, at age 19, that he imagined "Beit Filistine," or the "House of Palestine," which he built on Mount Gerazim, importing almost all the construction materials from France. The residence, he says, proves to the world and to the Israelis that Palestinians have the courage, the pride, "the resistance and the perseverance" to meet such a challenge.

In the morning, when al-Masri walks through the vast hall, he sometimes stops in the middle, in front of a marble statue of Hercules directly below the 80-meter-high "Dome of Tolerance." He says that Hercules symbolizes the spirit of the Palestinians. "Arafat used to say that we are the most resistant people in the world," he adds.

The construction of al-Masri's palace was completed in 2000 during the Intifada. While digging, construction workers unearthed a 5th century Byzantine church, which al-Masri preserved. In the rooms on the ground floor, alongside Picassos and Modiglianis, are tapestries, silver pieces, Louis XIV sofas, a wooden staircase from Italy and a chimney from Versailles. The park, where 10,000 olive trees are planted, was laid out by 35,000 trucks that removed rocks and fertile soil.

When asked why such a Baroque project, al-Masri answers serenely: "I could live in London, Geneva or New York, but I prefer Nablus." Perhaps because "Beit Filistine" is a central location for working on Palestinian reconciliation. On the day we met, three Hamas officials from the West Bank came to discuss an accord announced in May but effectively dead on arrival.

For him, extremists "are the product of oppression, of anger and the denial of dignity." The Israelis must recognize Palestinian independence now, he insists. "Otherwise, 15 years from now, they will be desperate for a Palestinian Mandela, because Israel will have become an apartheid state."

In early July, al-Masri received a group of Israeli officers from the West Bank coordination unit. He offered dates and baklava, noting that the Palestinian sweets were sent to him by his "friend," Khaled Mishaal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, in exile in Damascus. "Khaled sends greetings," he told his disconcerted guests.

While showing us out, the "simple man" from Mount Gerazim offered us parting gifts: a single lemon and organic tomato from his garden.

Read more from Le Monde in French

photo - wikipedia

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