New Palestinian city irks settlers

By Nathan Jeffay, May 6, 2010
An artist’s impression of Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city. Construction began this January

An artist’s impression of Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city. Construction began this January

When smart new houses spring up in the West Bank, it is normally settlers commissioning the building and Palestinians protesting. But in one place, they are trading places.

Construction in Jewish areas is slow due to the settlement freeze. But six miles north of Ramallah, builders are working non-stop on the first planned Palestinian city. And the settlers are furious.

Construction crews broke the ground at the new city, Rawabi, in January. In the first phase of construction, they are building 5,000 units across 23 neighbourhoods to house 25,000 people.

The first planned Palestinian city is aimed at the middle class, and by the time the first residents arrive in late 2012 it will offer all the amenities of an average Israeli city including a business district and commercial centre, fully developed infrastructure, parks, a hotel and a convention centre.

Project head Bashar Masri said that Rawabi is part of the Palestinian effort to invest in state-building and prepare for independence.

"It is the largest project ever in the history of the Palestinians and it comes at a time when Palestinians and the international community are talking about a Palestinian state," he said.

"It emphasises the need and ability of Palestinians to take matters in to their own hands and develop the essentials of a state - we want a developed state where there are good homes, plenty of jobs and which can be at peace with itself and others."

Mr Masri's company, Ramallah-based holding company, Massar International, is leading the project jointly with the Qatari Government-owned company Qatari Diar.

A standard Palestinian complaint in the West Bank is that the Israeli government thwarts plans for Palestinian building while letting settlers build as they wish. But with the start of Rawabi coinciding with the current settlement freeze, settlers are claiming their government is doing the opposite.

"It's amazing that the Israeli government is allowing this to be built when we are not allowed to construct due to the freeze," said Tamar Asaif, spokeswoman for the body that represents settlements in the area, the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council.

The settlers' complaint is not that Israel has granted permission for the project, as it is being built in an area where the Palestinian Authority controls planning applications and no Israeli permissions were needed. Rather, they are upset that Israel has failed to use its overall control of the West Bank to stop the city on strategic or security grounds.

Yishai Har-Aohav, a resident of Ateret, a settlement of 400 people located around a mile from Rawabi, said he fears that "if the population riots it could be in Ateret within 15 minutes.

"The government should stop all building in Rawabi out of concern for security for Israel, the Binyamin region and the [nearby] Shilo area."

Some settlers from a group called Youth for the Land of Israel recently marched to a nearby area where there are some unused Palestinian buildings, held prayer services and draped Israeli flags there to symbolically stake their claim on the area and protest the new city.

They plan to return and possibly set up an outpost there.

Their main objection to Rawabi is precisely the objection that Palestinians and most of the international community raises about settlements - that they create long stretches of Jewish territory that cut between Palestinian areas and make it difficult for Palestinians to travel, while making a sustainable Palestinian state hard to conceive.

"If there is a city between Nablus and Ramallah it creates Arab territorial continuity," said Youth for the Land of Israel leader Daniella Weiss.

Last updated: 2:53pm, May 6 2010