New Palestinian town in West Bank waiting for water and a road
Connecting the new city to a nearby water main depends on long-awaited approval from Israel. As a result, the future of the whole enterprise is hanging in the balance.
The New York Times
RAWABI, West Bank — The Roman-style amphitheater with seating for 12,000 is taking shape against a stunning backdrop of rolling hills. Off to one side, a small soccer stadium is under construction. On the slopes below, there are plans for a water park, and in the town center, a piazza lined with arcades and cafes. A movie theater is being built with seven screens, one of them 4-D.
“This will be a major destination for Palestinians who have no destinations,” Bashar Masri, the Palestinian businessman and driving force behind this ambitious project to build a new city here, said as he toured the site in his jeep last week.
The first 600 apartments in Rawabi, a short commute from Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s administrative capital in the West Bank, were sold more than a year ago and should have been turned over to their new owners in the spring.
But there are no people living in Rawabi, because there is no water here. Connecting the new city to a nearby water main depends on long-awaited approval from Israel. As a result, the future of the whole enterprise is hanging in the balance.
While Israeli officials say the water issue will be resolved soon, possibly within a week, Rawabi has already turned from a symbol of Palestinian entrepreneurship and state building into a cautionary tale of the perils of investing in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Aside from the water issue, Rawabi has still not received a permit to build a permanent road to the city, a small Palestinian enclave surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory.
“If we cannot achieve such a little request as getting water and a road for Rawabi, how can anyone speak of a massive economic plan for the West Bank?” Masri asked.
He was referring to an investment plan of up to $4 billion that Secretary of State John Kerry announced last year as part of an effort to revive moribund peace talks.
Masri is facing a major cash flow crisis because he cannot collect the $70 million due from homeowners and mortgage banks for the first 600 apartments until they are delivered. Contracts for further construction have been frozen, and up to 700 of the 4,000 people working on the project could lose their jobs by the end of September.
Once the water issue is resolved, Masri said, it would take about four more months to complete construction, which began in 2011. In the meantime, he is urgently seeking additional funds from his partner in the project, Qatar, which has already put in more than $400 million, and from other financiers. But if that money does not come through and the project continues to slow down, “we will be totally shut down by early next year,” he said.
The current war in the Gaza Strip, now in its seventh week, also led Masri to suspend marketing of the new apartments.
“You cannot tell people to come and buy a beautiful apartment when so many of the rest of your people just became homeless,” he said, referring to the tens of thousands of Gaza residents whose homes have been destroyed in Israeli bombings.
Getting his shoes dusty as he hopped in and out of the jeep to discuss construction details with workmen in hard hats, Masri swung between his signature enthusiasm, excitedly pointing out his own almost-complete penthouse above the town center, and despair. There is an inherent contradiction in sounding an alarm and trying to inspire confidence in order to sell more apartments — the master plan allows for 6,000 units, for a total population of 40,000.
The owners waiting to move in have generally been “very sympathetic,” Masri said. When they ask about the water problem, he tells them it is a force majeure — an unforeseen event that obstructs the fulfillment of a transaction.
“Water is essential for life,” said Amal Kaabi, who was supposed to move into a three-bedroom apartment here this summer with her husband, Adel, and their four children. A year ago the family, from Ramallah, told reporters that they had bought into Rawabi because there would be an orderly system, public amenities and “no chaos.”
Asked in a telephone interview recently who was to blame for the delay, Kaabi replied without hesitation, “the occupation.”
The murky explanations for the delay reflect the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli agency that coordinates civilian affairs with the Palestinian Authority, said that while both sides were sensitive to the international attention Rawabi had received as a flagship Palestinian enterprise, the delay was caused by the Palestinians’ refusal to sign on to projects in the Joint Water Committee, a body established under the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s to oversee water issues.
The committee has hardly met for two years because the sides cannot agree on an agenda. The previous head of the Palestinian Water Authority, Shaddad Attili, refused to approve projects that would benefit the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Israel responded by refusing to approve Palestinian projects.
The water authority’s new head, Mazen Ghnaim, was appointed Thursday. In a telephone interview hours after taking up the post, Ghnaim said that he had not gotten into the finer details of the issues yet, but that the Joint Water Committee “should convene soon.”
“Rawabi is a priority case for me,” he added.
Masri and his lawyer for all matters relating to Israel, Dov Weissglas, said that approval for the water connection had been expected in March.
Both said they believed the delay was political — part of the sanctions imposed by Israel on the Palestinian Authority and its umbrella, the Palestine Liberation Organization, for the reconciliation pact reached in April with Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates Gaza.
The Israeli prime minister’s office denied that was the case.
“We support the project,” an official there said of Rawabi.
There have been indications that the water problem may be on its way to resolution after recent exposure in the popular Hebrew newspaper Yediot Aharonot and on Israel’s Channel 2 News.
Advertising for the new apartments, which sell for $60,000 to $200,000, resumed last week on news of another cease-fire — which later collapsed — between Israel and Palestinian rebels in Gaza.
But, with more than 2,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza in the current conflict, plans for an inaugural celebration at the Rawabi amphitheater in October, featuring popular singers, have been canceled.
“This is not party time,” Masri said. “Far from it.”