Saturday, 27 August 2016

Rawabi - A city of hope



Palestinians see the West Bank, which Israel captured in the Six-Day War in 1967, as part of their independent state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Under the Oslo Accords reached two decades ago, the Palestinian government now rules about a third of the territory. The rest remains under Israeli control and is home to some 370,000 Jewish settlers. The last round of peace talks broke down two years ago, and prospects for resuming negotiations—much less reaching an agreement—are dim.
But after years of setbacks, Palestinians are proudly starting to move into their first planned city, Rawabiwhich is currently being built in the West Bank. This move is not just about real estate but also a symbol of Palestinians quest for statehood after nearly 50 years of Israeli military occupation.This privately financed city project in the heart of occupied West Bank symbolises both a possible future for the beleaguered Palestinian people.
That it has got this far in a place under military rule for almost half a century, and in the teeth of political obstruction, controversy and criticism, is a testament to the vision of its founder and driving force, a Palestinian-American entrepeneur called Bashar al-Masri,who dreamed up Rawabi, or hills in Arabic, in 2007. Work only began in 2012.Palestinian critics accused it of "normalising the occupation", of making deals with Israel for private profit. Jewish settlers on nearby hills watch and worry as Rawabi rises from the ground."I am defying the occupation," insists  Masri “Some people say Rawabi sugarcoats the occupation. I disagree. Rawabi is being built despite the occupation. We expose the occupation by our battle for basic things like water and a road.” For the last nine-years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created multiple delays in the development of the city. But the last hurdle has been the much needed approval for a water hookup from the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee.According to a 1995 interim agreement under the Oslo Accords, the JWC must approve water and sewage projects for Israelis and Palestinian in the West Bank. Although its first batch of apartment buildings is finished, homeowners have been unable to move in for the past year because the city lacked water. Masri said one of the major hurdles in starting Rawabi was getting approval from Israel for an access road and water supply to the city, which took years. "Dealing with occupation is not dealing with a proper nation," he said. "It's dealing with an ugly system."
Water has not been the only problem though. Rawabi is situated in Area A, the 18% of the West Bank that is under Palestinian control. But access to the city lies through Area C, the 60% that is under full Israeli control. Masri had to negotiate for permission to build a road on which trucks could deliver construction materials and cars and buses carry Rawabi workers – and, eventually, give Rawabi residents access to the rest of the West Bank.
Rawabi which is north of Ramallah perched on a once desolate hilltop, is the first Palestinian city being built according to a modern urban design plan. The organized layout and modern facilities are in jarring contrast to chaotic Palestinian towns and villages in the area. It now has a yearly renewable permit to use a narrow road that passes through an adjacent 1-kilometer stretch under Israeli control. A pipeline, which passes through the same area, brings in 300 cubic meters of water a day—insufficient for the residents as well as the construction that's underway.Additional water is currently being brought in on tankers, and some people supplement their supply from a nearby village. Masri said his next battle is to triple both the width of the seven-meter road and the water supply.Currently 250 families live in the city. That population is expected to swell to 60,000 when construction ends in about five years. A three-bedroom apartment averages about $100,000, about 25 percent less than in the main Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah nearby.At the heart of Rawabi will be the city center where art and culture will enjoy center stage,along with a large amphitheater that can hold 12,000 people, Rawabi now boasts also an industrial zone, schools, and the first big Western-style open-air shopping center in the West Bank. Such attractions lumped together in one city are unheard of in Palestinian areas.There is a mosque under construction and also a church which will serve the Palestinian Christian minority. About 10 percent of Rawabi residents are expected to be Christian.
Meanwhile though in sharp contrast no place in Palestine is less like Rawabi than Gaza. Sadly two years after the last of the three wars in six years whole districts lie in ruins, families are living in homes missing large sections of walls and roofs.  In these desolate streets there is neither electricity nor water and families say bitterly they are forgotten. The war displaced 500,00 people and 90,000 are displaced today, and 1.3 million people need aid, according to the UN.
Only 40% of the $3.5 billion pledged for reconstruction after the 2014 war has been delivered. The most basic infrastructure is in tatters, only kept functioning at all by resourceful engineers and administrators. In districts where there is electricity the cuts are sometimes 18 hours at a time. Ninety per cent of the water is contaminated. Stinking lakes of untreated sewage lie right by where people live and a visitor must cover the nose to bear driving close. UN technical reports have said that by 2020 Gaza will be unliveable – mainly because of the water crisis. One teacher said simply, “our life is already hell.” During our visit to his office patients twice burst in, and only agreed to wait because he was seeing “foreigners”.
In addition Israeli airstrikes still hit the Strip – as recently as last week. Even worse is the eight year blockade of the 1.8 million people — internationally recognised as collective punishment breaching international law.
Rawabi though  the first Palestinian city to be established in thousands of years can at least at a time of growing malaise over a standstill in Middle East peace efforts, offer some source of pride, hope and excitement for the Palestinian people while at the same time not distracting from the harsh realities of life under occupation.


Israeli settlement Ateret in background as the Palestinian national flag flies from the highest point of Rawabi

              A large amphitheater will hold about 12,000 people in the entertainment complex.

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