Palestinian-American businessman and entrepreneur Bashar al-Masri is making history – by building the first modern Palestinian city. Rawabi, the name of the city and the Arabic word for “hills”, is envisioned to become a modern, hi-tech, and comfortable city in a region devastated by poverty and poor infrastructure. Though the city is still in the process of being built, the first residents moved to Rawabi in August 2015. Despite political and economic challenges, it has already created 6,000 new jobs in construction and engineering, and estimated to produce another 5,000 in retail, health, and more.
Al-Masri has worked closely with Israeli contractors, advisers, and companies to import necessary materials. Furthermore, Rawabi is modeled off of Israeli city Modi’in, an Israeli city which was also meticulously planned. Al-Masri continues to visit Modi’in for ideas, and draws inspiration from Israel’s modern and hi-tech atmosphere. His work with Israelis is groundbreaking, and the unique partnerships he has created inspire optimism with regards to Israeli-Palestinian business relations and the future of intercultural cooperation.
Surprisingly, al-Masri wasn’t always open to working with Israelis. He was jailed eight times as a teenager for throwing rocks and organizing demonstrations, was involved in the first intifada, and was a close acquaintance of Yasser Arafat. Although he still refuses to work with Israeli settlers in the West Bank, he has had positive experiences working with Israeli businessmen and women and has only kind things to say. Israeli workers and companies have worked with al-Masri to help him create the new city and, despite political and economic challenges, continue to provide technology and other material supplies in addition to advisement and consultation.
Despite this great success and the promising new Palestinian city, however, al-Masri has faced substantial backlash from Palestinians. They accuse him of supporting Israel’s “occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people,” and even go so far as to say that creating a modern, comfortable Palestinian city undermines the daily struggles they are facing. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), the leading organization of the BDS movement, has condemned Rawabi as “normalization” of anti-Palestinian Israeli policies and claims that it undermines the Palestinian fight for freedom and justice. Al-Masri disagrees, instead arguing that building Rawabi will not only improve the lives of Palestinians, but also prevent Israelis from settling there. (It should be noted, however, that Rawabi is located in Area A and is thus under Arab control where Israelis are not allowed to live.) He also points out that the Palestinian Authority has provided no funding towards the establishment of Rawabi; the PA, he believes, should view it as a priority and invest in Rawabi by building a school, clinic, or other public infrastructure, yet he has not received any financial support from them whatsoever.
Bashar al-Masri’s project is groundbreaking in two endeavors: first, by creating the first Palestinian city to be planned from the very beginning, and second, by establishing significant business ties between Palestinians and Israelis. Israel has helped in nearly every stage of the creation of Rawabi, despite it being an entirely Palestinian city. Instead of viewing this as a hand outstretched for peace, however, the anti-Israel movement has just added this Palestinian city to its list of projects presumed to revoke the rights of Palestinians. Yet this could not be further from the truth. Rawabi is creating jobs exclusively for Palestinians, providing a comfortable and affordable living situation, and improving the overall quality of life for Palestinians. Modernization does not equal Westernization, nor does working with Israelis equate to denying Palestinians their rights. When the PA and critics realize this, we can expect to see a positive change in Israeli-Palestinian relations, as well as better lives for Palestinians who are struggling.