Tradesmen are busy constructing high-rise apartment-like homes. Additionally, the new city will include a school; a commercial center envisioned to serve as a technology hub for local and international companies; an outdoor entertainment facility; and a complete recreational complex including an equestrian facility and water park. There will also be a medical center, a winery, a church, a mosque and a five-star hotel. Fiber optic networking is ubiquitous throughout the city.
One might think this is happening in the United States, but as recently aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes, this project is happening in the Palestinian West Bank. The name of this city-building initiative is Rawabi, which means “The Hills” in Arabic. Situated north of Ramallah, in-between Jerusalem and Nablus, Rawabi is the first-ever Palestinian planned city. The visionary behind the project is Palestinian-American businessman Bashar Masri. I have visited Rawabi six times and have the honor of knowing Masri and members of his project team, all of whom I have come to admire.
Earnest construction began in 2012 and is progressing in phases. Four neighborhoods are complete. More than 5,000 individuals now live in Rawabi. The Rawabi English Academy School opened in the fall of 2016 and today has more than 270 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. In the summer of 2017, the “QCenter,” the commercial district for the city, opened with more than 30 retail stores and over 100 international retail brands, along with cafés and restaurants; 500-600 individuals are currently working in one of the several businesses in the city.
First stage completion of Rawabi will comprise 6,000 housing units across 22 neighborhoods housing 25,000 residents; subsequent phases will make Rawabi home for 40,000 residents. All construction costs are funded by Massar International, which Masri chairs, and the Qatari government. Total investment in Rawabi will exceed $1.4 billion making it the largest private sector undertaking in Palestinian history, and it is estimated that its construction will create up to 10,000 jobs. Yet Rawabi is more than bricks and mortar.
Critics have accused the city of looking like neighboring Israeli settlements rather than traditional Palestinian architecture. Some Israeli settlers and politicians have sought to halt the project. Still others, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, have called for a boycott against Rawabi and Masri, accusing Masri of only benefitting himself and his investors, and more critically, of normalizing relations with Israel.
During my visits to Rawabi I have learned what the project means to individuals living and working in Rawabi. Throughout my conversations with Rawabians, several themes emerged about the city, such as, Rawabi is the future and is providing hope; Rawabi is improving the quality of life for Palestinians; Rawabi is helping Palestinians feel proud about who they are; Rawabi is changing the narrative from one of asking the international community to provide money to support them to one in which Palestinians are capable of building their own future. One critical recurring theme was how Rawabi is a model for a diverse and democratic future Palestinian state, changing expectations for a Palestinian vision for the future.
Masri believes that building houses and creating jobs makes Rawabi a critical part in helping to create a strong economic foundation for a future state. For him, a sound nation is composed of good governance, good human and civil rights and a sound economy. He argues that Palestinians don’t have to wait to have a state to have a quality of life enjoyed by others around the world; they can start now to create those aspects of a good life for themselves.
Rawabi is impacting the narrative that Palestinians are perpetual victims. Individuals with whom I talked consistently expressed a sentiment that Rawabi is showing the true nature of Palestinians as builders — building a city, a state, a life style, and a future of hope. Rawabi is altering how Palestinians see themselves and actively creating a new narrative of Palestinian pride and agency for what they can do in building their future.
So, what is Rawabi? To those living and working in Rawabi, it is a city of people building hope for a better future; it is creating a new Palestinian narrative that engenders pride and empowers personal and collective agency for a new tomorrow. Masri, his team, and the thousands of people living and working in Rawabi deserve our respect and earnest support as they strive to build a better future for themselves.