New Palestinian city rises with sleek homes, boutiques

Shatha Yaish
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So far only some 3,000 people live in the pristine rows of beige tower blocks in the new city of Rawabi

With wide boulevards, fashionable shopping and a Roman-style amphitheatre, the newly built Palestinian city of Rawabi is the culmination of a decades-long dream for developer Bashar al-Masri.

The Palestinian-American businessman has struggled to overcome Israeli hurdles, critics in his own community and political instability to turn the $1.4-billion project in the occupied West Bank into reality -- but now he hopes it can become a beacon in the quest for statehood.

So far only some 3,000 people live in the pristine rows of beige tower blocks that have gone up since work began from scratch in the barren hills just north of Ramallah almost a decade ago on the first ever planned city to be built by Palestinians in the territory.

Construction is still rumbling on and some streets can feel eerily quiet, but eventually it is hoped 40,000 people will one day call the city home.

"Rawabi, especially in the past four or five months, has become a destination for all Palestinians," sharply dressed Masri, 56, insisted, as he sat at a cafe in the city's new shopping mall.

"Every month, at least 100,000 Palestinians visit and come out impressed."

The symmetrical housing and careful planning of Rawabi -- which means hills in Arabic -- has led some to say it resembles more the Israeli settlements that most Palestinians cannot visit than other towns in the occupied territory.

It boasts an extreme sports centre and 15,000-seater amphitheatre hung with giant pictures of Arab and Western entertainment stars, while a cinema and winery are set to be built.

The city's design and high-end facilities have sparked criticism that it caters only for the elite and is out of place and out of reach in an impoverished region where unemployment is rampant.

But Masri insists there is demand and says the Palestinians themselves will determine if his project will succeed.

"I do not know who decides what the Palestinians want. Is it the occupation? The world? We decide for ourselves what we want and not all of us want the same thing," he insisted.

"The Palestinians deserve a better life. We should not be oppressed because we live under occupation."

- 'Everything is available' -

For the Palestinians flocking to catch a glimpse, the city is meant to offer another vision for life in their troubled territories.

Saed Abu Fkheida and his wife were only window shopping at the international brands like Max Mara, Juicy Couture, Armani Jeans and Lacoste in the sleek Q Center mall, built like the rest of the city with the help of state funds from Qatar.

While many shops still remain to be filled some six months after the shopping complex opened, he was impressed by facilities that you can't find elsewhere in the West Bank.

"Everything is available here in one place. There are clothes, toys," he said. "In Ramallah, you would need to visit several places to find what you are looking for."

The first residents moved into Rawabi in 2015 and the price for flats now runs from $70,000 to $180,000.

Those fortunate enough to have managed to buy a place -- often well-heeled Palestinians who worked in the Gulf states or even Arab Israelis -- say they now feel at home.

Fatima Nazzal admitted the development felt "kind of empty" when she moved in with her husband Iyad and three daughters after returning from Saudi Arabia -- but the family now says the standard of living matches what they experienced abroad.

"We found the same things we were used to here in relation to infrastructure, comfort and a way of life we are used to," Iyad said.

"Now, with the opening of the Q Center, there are people coming here and there are activities," Fatima added.

- 'Giant step' -

Turning a vacant hillside of shrubs and sand into gleaming residential streets and cafes has been a long and bumpy road -- especially in an area so fraught with political tensions.

Those behind Rawabi say the Israeli authorities took years just to approve one access road and stalled for a long time on connecting the development to the main water supplies, nearly scuppering the entire project.

Despite those obstacles, Masri has also faced criticism from those on the other side of the divide who argue he is in fact too close to Israel.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement have claimed in the past that Masri uses dealings with "Israeli political and business elite as a means to advance personal interests and profit-making at the expense of Palestinian rights."

But the developer, who has not directly responded to the complaints, dismissed critics who he said "target anything that is constructive" - and is adamant that the project has popular support.

And even if he cannot guarantee it will make money, Masri is convinced that constructing cities like Rawabi will help bolster the Palestinians as they seek to create their own country.

"Time will prove to these people that this is a giant step towards building our state," he said.