The nonviolent intifada: Rawabi

“This is a kind of resistance,” said the real estate agent. How often does someone in his profession get to deliver a line like that?

We handed him back our 3D glasses and filed out of the sales office to see the physical manifestation of the computer-generated promotional video we’d just been shown. A van drove us briefly past the neighbourhoods currently being constructed, taking us to Rawabi’s first completed streets due to be filled with new families.

Rawabi is a new planned city with ultra-modern homes, a cultural centre and the region’s largest amphitheatre. What makes it remarkable, though, is that it is the first and only city to be built in post-1948 Palestine. Its construction was plagued by problems that almost saw millions of dollars spent on a ghost town. In a nation which has lost scores of villages and towns over the past 70 years of strife, Rawabi’s struggle and ultimate breakthrough have made it a symbol of resistance to our realtor guide, and to Palestinians around the territories and in the diaspora.

The developer in charge of this act of resistance is not the Palestinian Authority but a Palestinian-American businessman, Bashar Masri. A childhood in Nablus throwing stones at the IDF, an education in America, and a return to Palestine as a millionaire led Masri to undertake the risky construction. Al-Jazeera quotes him as espousing the view of Rawabi as a form of resistance: “Building a city is, in a way, fighting the occupation.”

The gamble of constructing a Palestinian city

Part of the road from Ramallah to Rawabi draws the border line between Jalazone refugee camp and Beit El settlement. The houses of Jalazone are arranged in a gradient from old, concrete constructions, thrown together to give recent refugees shelter, to newer, elegantly-built homes. The new builds still belong to refugees, but ones who are resigned to the camp being their permanent home. In contrast, Beit El is a suburb of identikit cookie-cutter houses. They are certain of their identity and their right to be on the land. The two colonies are unnervingly close, locked in an endless showdown. Driving past, I wonder what they think looking out their windows at each other every day.

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Rawabi’s amphitheatre. An Israeli settlement can be seen on the hill.

Rawabians will face the same showdown in their new home. The apartments face in the direction of the city’s amphitheatre, and beyond it the open hills. But the city is flanked by settlements, the inhabitants of which deeply oppose the new development. A Haaretz piece accurately notes that “every Palestinian success is an Israeli failure” in the eyes of settlers. The locals vocally protested the construction of Rawabi from its foundations and are unlikely to make for friendly neighbours to its citizens.

Cold shoulders from the locals were the least of Rawabi’s problems. The first inhabitants were due to arrive in May 2015. In February, the city had no water supply. Most Palestinian homes use water tanks on their roofs, filled with water bought at extortionate prices, as they are not connected to Israel’s monopolised water supplies. The day-to-day drought Palestinian families face is well-documented. Rawabi sought to be an exception, to connect to water pipes like Israeli homes. The catch was that it needed Israeli permission to do it.

The official excuse as to why this permission took five years to come was that the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee has not been convened since 2010, for which Israel held the Palestinian Authority responsible. Under the Oslo accords, water permits must be approved by both sides of the committee. However, the lack of a Committee meeting or permit hasn’t stopped water flowing to Israel’s constructions. Building work at Rawabi continued, the cost rising daily along with the likelihood that the city would always be a ghost town. Construction continued in the face of uncertainty for five years before the water was finally allowed to flow.

A city without shawarma

The material of the promo video puts me in mind of central Milton Keynes, with its planned boulevards of shops. The video also features about the same number of hijabi women as I’d expect to see on a Milton Keynes street; the target demographic seems to be women with long, professionally-dyed hair and their families. Rawabi is a closed community where the inhabitants are provided with everything they could need. The extensive planning has seen to everything. Three schools were built in time for the first inhabitants: boys, girls and mixed, to cater to every religious and social outlook.

What it lacks is a falafel stand. The video shows shisha and coffee stalls, but none of Ramallah’s messy neon fast food signs that regularly tempted me to part with 5 shekel pieces. Rawabi is a purely middle class town. The estate agent is open in telling us that the only apartments currently available are affordable to families with dual incomes or one highly-paid worker. There is no place for the owners of newsagents and shawarma shops.

The middle class-ness of Rawabi has made it unpopular with some Palestinians who see it as an elitist hub with capitalist motives. The estate agent told us that more affordable housing will go on the market in time, but I find it hard to imagine what day-to-day life is like in the city now. Presumably those shisha bars needs waiters to top up the coals. Do they bus the low-wage workers in each morning, or are the cafes standing empty until the cheap housing opens up?

Masri has also been accused of normalising the occupation by seeking permission from Israel, using Israeli materials in construction, and accepting a donation of trees from a Zionist organisation. Masri told Al-Jazeera, “As you grow, you understand things better and you learn things. I believe since we have signed a peace agreement, that all our resistance should be a peaceful… We need to become more sophisticated by using smart ways of fighting the occupation.” To critics, his narrative of resistance is a cynical ploy for the market.

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A symbol of resistance, or of collaboration

Rawabi is a case study of a dilemma that many Palestinians have faced: the choice between acting on Israel’s terms and doing nothing on their own. Families facing demolition orders on their houses have to choose between appealing in an Israeli court or waiting for the bulldozers. The first option legitimises a system plagued by unfairness, which almost inevitably sides against them. The second turns homeowners into squatters, forced to occupy their own houses for fear that leaving them for a moment will result in demolition.

Rawabi could not have been built without Israel’s approval.  On principle, cooperating with the unjust systems of the occupation gives them legitimacy and should be avoided. On principle, too, Palestinians should expand to use the land of the West Bank to alleviate the housing crisis and resist the spread of settlements. Profit undoubtedly gave further motivation to the developer to side with the latter principle. It’s only a matter of moral intuition which horn of the dilemma you’ll side with.

As we drove away I was left intrigued by Rawabi and its creator’s move from stone-thrower to tycoon. It was a very different life story to that of the former prisoner I’d met a couple of weeks earlier. When I go back to Palestine, I’ll stop by Rawabi to see if any shawarma shops have opened yet.

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