If there is a future to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the seeds of peace may well be cultivated through the dream of a Palestinian-American businessman who feels connected to where he came from.
I recently spent time in Rawabi, the dazzling dream child of Bashar Masri, a 50-year-old businessman with a degree in engineering who was born in Nablus and immigrated to the United States with his family as a teenager. The first planned Palestinian city, Rawabi literally means “hills,” and the city perches on a hilltop in the West Bank, close to both Jerusalem and Ramallah. Many Israelis liken Rawabi to Modi’in, the 20-year-old planned Israeli city situated midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
When I met with him last summer in his Rawabi offices, Masri’s pride in the new city was palpable. Plans call for several residential neighbourhoods with a range of housing options, along with business and entertainment districts with shops, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and theatres, and an industrial zone. Beautifully landscaped, the city has parks, playgrounds, and walking paths, mosques, a church and schools. It is environmentally friendly in its use of local materials, economic use of water and plans for recycling. Although Rawabi is still under construction, the first residents – several hundred families – have already moved in.
Masri envisions Rawabi as a magnet for upwardly mobile, middle-class Palestinian families. Implicit in his vision is a fundamental change in the way people live, which is to say, the organization of society. Traditionally, Palestinians live in enclaves of extended families. As young people marry, parents build them new homes adjacent to their own. But Rawabi is organized on a more westernized life model – young people follow their best opportunity for a good life. As such, the tight hold of clans loosens, and young people begin to invest in the life they build and in the promise of new possibilities.
Masri explained that for him, Rawabi is not so much a real estate development project as a nation-building project. It is hoped that the shining city on the hill will inspire a sense of Palestinian nationhood built on pride, enterprise and economic confidence, rather than encumbered by a sense of victimization and enmity. Already the city has brought new jobs to Palestinians in the West Bank, mostly in construction. Masri hopes to encourage high-tech companies and other start-up firms to set up shop.
Rawabi has taken criticism from both Palestinian groups and from Jewish settler groups. Some Palestinians fear that Rawabi paves the path to peace with – and acceptance of – a Jewish state. Some settlers fear Rawabi might house extremists, and also that it paves the path to peace with a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. While the Israeli government has not always supported this initiative – delaying, for example, supplying water to the city and permitting access roads – the Jewish National Fund donated saplings for landscaping.
Like the founder himself, the vision for Rawabi is of a hybrid culture – Middle Eastern, but also westernized. This modern ideal is most concretely visible in Rawabi’s enormous open-air amphitheatre. The exterior walls of the buildings that form a half-ring around the amphitheatre are decorated with screened murals of famous entertainers: actors and other performers from Arab and western cinema and stage, including Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe (in the iconic photo above the subway grating).
Publicity materials for the city reinforce that modern, hybrid cultural vision, depicting families, and couples sitting in cafes, wearing western garb: women in jeans with no head coverings, wearing a range of clothing that include trousers, tank tops and long-sleeved shirts. During my visit, only one of the women working in Rawabi’s cultural centre wore a hijab.
In many ways, Masri’s vision for Rawabi mirrors what’s best in Israel: enterprising, diverse, start-up, worldly but grounded in local culture.