On the computer screens in the offices of the Bayti Real Estate and Investment Company, on a quiet Ramallah Street, a potentially historic attempt to create the first-ever planned Palestinian town is well under way.
The effort could be a major Palestinian milestone, or a fiasco, depending on Israel’s stance and the ability of Bayti to deliver in the West Bank — a more volatile setting than Morocco, the venue for its previous projects.
The town, to be named Rawabi (“hills”) is to be situated ten kilometres north of Ramallah, the West Bank’s commercial capital and the seat of the Palestinian Authority.
Bayti chairman Bashar al-Masri says the $300m (£150m) project is aimed at addressing a housing shortage in the West Bank.
“Our motivation is to bring our experience and that of others who work with us in the region to Palestine in order to help jump-start the economy and create jobs,” he adds.
Plans call for the town initially to house 25,000 people in 5,000 homes on land that Bayti has bought from private owners and to later expand. Its commercial area is to include shops, restaurants, groceries and offices. Mr Masri hopes that high-tech firms can be attracted to set up shop. He believes that the first houses can be built by April 2009.
But implementation faces question marks. Israel has so far blocked plans for a new road envisioned by Bayti as a crucial artery for the town-to-be.
Meanwhile, the project, while seen by many as a blessing, is not without critics among Palestinians. Some say that Bayti is calling too many of the shots in what is supposed to be a public-/private-sector partnership: choosing the city’s location, drawing the master plan, even selecting the name for the town from a market survey.
The PA’s role is to provide sewerage, roads, water, electricity and other off-site infrastructure for the project. A weak PA, critics say, has allowed Bayti so much power that the project risks being implemented solely according to the company’s interest, not necessarily the national or public interest.
The PA denies it is being manipulated by the company or has relinquished its governmental roles. It says that even if Bayti draws the plan, it still must get PA approval.
The planning shifted into high gear in the run-up to the Palestine Investment Conference (PIC) in Bethlehem on Wednesday to Friday this week, hosted by the PA and with the assistance of the international community’s Middle East envoy, Tony Blair.Rawabi will be a key test of whether investors can make money in the West Bank. But Israel says it is problematic to build new roads in area C, in which it retained full control under the Oslo Agreement.
“It is mainly a rural area and new roads can enable terrorists to move freely and create security problems,” said spokesman Peter Lerner of the office of the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories.
“The road could be misused. And it is not necessary because we have now removed the checkpoint that was blocking access to the area. There is no need to build a new road.”
Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, says the planned town can be seen as a response to occupation, confinement and Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. “It’s a way to get out of the prison culture, the walls culture. People have to expand on their own territory and this comes to meet some of their expectations.”