A Middle-Class Paradise in Palestine?

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?

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The Rawabi construction site, as it appeared in October of 2010. (Dan Balilty/AP)

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.

9-11 Ten Years Later

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.

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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. 

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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