A visit to Rawabi

I did something today that the Israeli government seems to think is dangerous.  At least that’s what the sign says: “Area A: Danger to your life and a criminal violation.”  Area A is the part of the West Bank that is under Palestinian civil and security control (mostly places like Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem).  I visited the under construction Palestinian development town of Rawabi with a group from the Hartman Institute. Truth is, our busload of rabbis visiting a construction site did not feel particularly death defying.  But it was very interesting. (And a point of clarification: it was not illegal for us Israelis to join, as the visit had been coordinated with the proper authorities.  And it was completely safe.)

We were on a tour of the West Bank led by people representing a variety of ideological views, including Danny Seidemann, founder of Ir Amim and Danny Tirza, the former IDF officer who was in charge of the routing of the security barrier for many years.

Both speakers were excellent, although I did not learn a lot I didn’t know before.  Danny Tirza spoke sincerely about wanting to balance security with the interests of the Palestinians, and the Supreme Court has mostly backed the choices he made, with a few exceptions.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Palestinians felt that a kipah wearing guy who lives in a settlement was going to be the most objective when it comes to balancing their needs?

But for me the most interesting part of the day by far was visiting Rawabi.  Rawabi is by far the largest private initiative in the West Bank.  It’s basically the Palestinian version of Modi’in, although they seem to be doing a much better job of planning.  Perhaps it helps that Moshe Safdie, an Israeli architect who planned Modi’in took them on a tour of that Israeli city and told them what he did wrong! 🙂

Rawabi is a billion dollar project (it was $800 million, but the value of the dollar has shrank!), financed largely by Qatar, the initiative of a Palestinian entrepreneur, Bashar Masri who was educated in the US and lived in Washington for a long time.  We had the opportunity to meet with Bashar, and I was certainly very impressed with his vision.  Rawadi is intended to be affordable housing for young professionals from Ramallah and

Nablus; it’s a 20 minute drive to Ramallah, half an hour to Nablus (just as Modi’in is in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv).  The first 1,000 units are slated to be ready for occupancy in two years; eventually the town should house 40,000 people and provide jobs for 5,000.  It’s the first master planned community in the Palestinian territories, and the plans look great, and the prices are excellent (they are trying to provide “affordable housing” for the target clients). 

They have three significant problems they are still dealing with as they really kick into high gear on construction: access, water, and public infrastructure.  While the project is entirely in “Area A,” they need a road that crosses 2.8 km of “Area C,” near a settlement, Ateret.  The residents of Ateret, which is very deep in Palestinian territory, are very ideological, and opposed to Rawabi.  The Palestinians are still awaiting final approval of the road, which is needed because the current road goes through a village and is not suitable for the hundreds of trucks a day needed when construction is fully under way.  They are also still negotiating final water connections with both the Israeli and Palestinian water authorities, and the PA does not really have the funds yet for the public infrastructure parts of the project.  But Bashar seems optimistic that these hurdles will be overcome.

Another small hiccup: they work with a number of Israeli suppliers; they have asked the Israeli suppliers not to procure supplies in settlements: if the people in Ateret hate him (and he has personally received a death threat) he does not want to support them financially. The Knesset is voting whether or not to penalize Israeli companies that agree to this condition as a “boycott.”  Bashar says that extremists on both sides hate him, which makes him feel he must doing something right.  The right-wing Israelis criticize his “boycott” of settlement products; the extreme Palestinians criticize him for working with Israelis at all!  Some of the more extreme Palestinians are also opposed to the project because a lot of “refugees” will no longer be refugees when they buy apartments there.

Bashar has also set up the first Palestinian venture capital fund, the Siraj Fund, capitalized at $80 million, to invest in startups, some of whom he hopes will locate in Rawabi.

Someone on the tour asked “why did you bring us here to show us this, instead of showing us a refugee camp?”  I liked the answer: at the refugee camp, all you will see is the problems.  At Rawabi, you can see what a solution looks like.  And it was encouraging to see what a solution looks like!  I wish them the best of luck, and hope I can visit the finished project some day.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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