The West Bank's first Palestinian-designed planned city offers a window into the promises and perils of the current situation in the Middle East. But will it be a novelty, or a game-changer?
The sole outlet to Rawabi sits off a dizzying two-lane highway flanked by round, scraggly hills. In this part of the West Bank, just north of where the Jerusalem suburbs thin into a dry, granite-gray wilderness, the mountains seem to aid in the illusion that Israeli and Palestinian spheres of authority can remain perfectly, even harmoniously separate. Arabs use the road to get to the Palestinian-controlled cities of Bir Zeit and Ramallah; for Jewish Israelis, the road connects the Jerusalem area to settlements deep inside the northern half of the West Bank.
Ramallah's skyline is barely discernible on a hazy day. Ateret, a red-gabled settlement of about 90 families that sits high above the Rawabi junction -- a community which would likely either be vacated or incorporated into a Palestinian state under a future peace agreement -- flickers in and out of view with every delirious knot in the road. Even a concrete pillbox looming over the highest point along the highway is abandoned, its connection to the territory's oddly invisible occupying army marked only by a tattered Israeli flag that no one has bothered to steal or replace.
Last year was the first since 1973 in which no Israeli citizen was killed in a terrorist attack originating from the West Bank. As on the newly-pacified Gaza-Israel border, a tense quiet pervades things here, although a bright red sign at the junction reminds one category of motorist not to feel too complacent. "This road leads to Area 'A' Under the Palestinian Authority," it reads in Arabic, Hebrew, and broken English. "The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law." At the Rawabi junction these warnings of latent danger are almost comically off-base, partly because of the only other marker at the turnoff: a light-green arrow sagging off of a nearby post.
No one lives at the end of the road, which is every bit as wavy and disorienting as the adjoining highway. It empties into a scene that seems engineered for maximum bewilderment: three high-rise cranes, topped with fluttering Palestinian flags, tower over massive stone and concrete building frames. Cement-mixers, painted the same shade of light green as the arrow at the turnoff and marked with the project's logo -- a wiry oval with a cute little convex loop at the end, like a child's drawing of a heart that could also be a tree -- line up to receive material from a buzzing, state-of-the-art plant. The construction site, a couple turns up-road of the cement factory, is swarming with workers in green hardhats. Spotless SUVs with the Rawabi logo on the door speed from one side of the site to another.
Rawabi, which will be the first Palestinian planned city in the West Bank, runs from the top of the mountain to the valley below, with its highest point sitting at an elevation slightly higher than Ateret, which is now constantly visible. In contrast, the chaos of Ramallah, stronghold of an insolvent and sclerotic Palestinian Authority, feels distant in more senses than one.
Rawabi represents something totally new -- a visionary Palestinian-directed private sector project, with support from both Israeli businesses and a major Arab government. It has the potential to shift the conversation on the region's future on both sides of the Green Line. It could convince Palestinians -- and the rest of the world -- that the future of the West Bank shouldn't be shackled to Ramallah or Jerusalem's vacillating willingness to hash out fundamental issues. It could prove that there's an appetite, both among Palestinian consumers and foreign donors, for the creation of a social and economic existence in the West Bank that's de-coupled, insomuch as currently possible, from the Middle East's tense and labyrinthine politics.
It would also help solidify the benefits of the current cessation in hostilities. Indeed, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's progress in fostering the end of violent resistance in the West Bank in the years after the bloody Second Intifada, coupled with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's widely-respected institution-building initiative, could get a crucial private sector assist through Rawabi's eventual success.
And Rawabi gets at something even more fundamental. "It touches upon all of the core issues of control and sovereignty," says Robert Danin, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who, as head of the Quartet mission in Jerusalem from 2008 to 2010, witnessed some of the political discussions that accompanied the project's creation. "This could be a huge, iconic victory for the whole strategy of building Palestine from the bottom up rather than trying to build it at the negotiating table," he says.
Its success would prove just how much power Palestinians can, and indeed already do, have in shaping their future. And its failure could prove the exact opposite.
I visited Rawabi two weeks ago with a group of national security professionals, as part of a trip organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. (All of the photos in the body of the article are mine.) We were taken around the construction site by a young Palestinian engineer who conveyed the vast ambition underlying the project: When the city is completed, she said, it will house 45,000 people in 23 distinct neighborhoods with innocuous, nature-based names like "Flint," and "Hard Rock". (Rawabi is Arabic for "Hills".) There will be eight schools -- some of them built with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development -- a "huge park," a convention center, an 850-seat indoor theater, and a 20,000-seat amphitheater carved into a hillside.
Most ambitiously, there will be a commercial center that developers hope will bring in between 3,000 and 5,000 permanent jobs within the next five years -- hopefully, we were told, in the informational technology sector (an aspiration that might imply a certain cooperation with the burgeoning tech industry on the other side of the Green Line). The engineer said that Rawabi had already created 3,000 construction jobs for West Bank Palestinians. The city is Palestinian-designed and Palestinian-built -- making the surfeit of Qatari flags at the construction site somewhat puzzling at first. And while the project does not purchase materials from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the engineer was hardly shy in explaining that Rawabi would add an estimated $85 million to the Israeli economy.
As we drove around the construction site, the engineer's talk made few demands on the imagination. The sheer scale of the project is already obvious. Within the next 18 months, the first phase, which includes six neighborhoods, a mosque, the amphitheater, and two-thirds of the city's commercial center, will be complete, and 3,000 people are scheduled will move into Rawabi by the end of 2013. Apartment blocks built of a local white stone -- "Rawabi stone," the engineer called it -- are already rising out of a network of concentric ring-roads centered on the top of the hill. Most of these roads have already been paved, and there are terraced retaining walls, built out of thick stacks of local sandstone, running all the way to the bottom of the valley. No bleachers have been installed in the amphitheater yet, but it's fairly far along, with the future seating area fanning into a wide notch in the mountainside. There are attractive stone signs bearing the stylized Arabic names of neighborhoods that haven't been built yet.