Kick­start­ing the econ­omy with a new£150mtown

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY BEN LYN­FIELD

ON THE COM­PUTER screens in the of­fices of the Bayti Real Es­tate and In­vest­ment Com­pany, on a quiet Ra­mal­lah Street, a po­ten­tially his­toric at­tempt to cre­ate the first-ever planned Pales­tinian town is well un­der way.

The ef­fort could be a ma­jor Pales­tinian mile­stone, or a fi­asco, de­pend­ing on Is­rael’s stance and the abil­ity of Bayti to de­liver in the West Bank — a more volatile set­ting than Morocco, the venue for its pre­vi­ous projects.

The town, to be named Rawabi (“hills”) is to be sit­u­ated ten kilo­me­tres north of Ra­mal­lah, the West Bank’s com­mer­cial cap­i­tal and the seat of the Pales­tinian Author­ity.

Bayti chair­man Bashar al-Masri says the $300m (£150m) project is aimed at ad­dress­ing a hous­ing short­age in the West Bank.

“Our mo­ti­va­tion is to bring our ex­pe­ri­ence and that of oth­ers who work with us in the re­gion to Pales­tine in or­der to help jump-start the econ­omy and cre­ate jobs,” he adds.

Plans call for the town ini­tially to house 25,000 peo­ple in 5,000 homes on land that Bayti has bought from private own­ers and to later ex­pand. Its com­mer­cial area is to in­clude shops, restau­rants, gro­ceries and of­fices. Mr Masri hopes that high-tech firms can be at­tracted to set up shop. He be­lieves that the first houses can be built by April 2009.

But im­ple­men­ta­tion faces ques­tion marks. Is­rael has so far blocked plans for a new road en­vi­sioned by Bayti as a cru­cial artery for the town-to-be.

Mean­while, the project, while seen by many as a bless­ing, is not with­out crit­ics among Pales­tini­ans. Some say that Bayti is call­ing too many of the shots in what is sup­posed to be a pub­lic-/private-sec­tor part­ner­ship: choos­ing the city’s lo­ca­tion, draw­ing the mas­ter plan, even se­lect­ing the name for the town from a mar­ket sur­vey.

The PA’s role is to pro­vide sew­er­age, roads, wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and other off-site in­fra­struc­ture for the project. A weak PA, crit­ics say, has al­lowed Bayti so much power that the project risks be­ing im­ple­mented solely ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s in­ter­est, not nec­es­sar­ily the na­tional or pub­lic in­ter­est.

The PA de­nies it is be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by the com­pany or has re­lin­quished its gov­ern­men­tal roles. It says that even if Bayti draws the plan, it still must get PA ap­proval.

The plan­ning shifted into high gear in the run-up to the Pales­tine In­vest­ment Con­fer­ence (PIC) in Beth­le­hem on Wed­nes­day to Fri­day this week, hosted by the PA and with the as­sis­tance of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s Mid­dle East en­voy, Tony Blair. R a w a b i w i l l be a key test of whether in­vestors can make money in the West Bank. But Is­rael says it is prob­lem­atic to build new roads in area C, in which it re­tained full con­trol un­der the Oslo Agree­ment.

“It is mainly a rural area and new roads can en­able ter­ror­ists to move freely and cre­ate se­cu­rity prob­lems,” said spokesman Peter Lerner of the of­fice of the Co­or­di­na­tor of Ac­tiv­i­ties in the Ter­ri­to­ries.

“The road could be mis­used. And it is­not­nec­es­sary­be­causewe­havenow re­moved the check­point that was block­ing ac­cess to the area. There is no need to build a new road.”

Mahdi Ab­dul-Hadi, di­rec­tor of the Pales­tinian Aca­demic So­ci­ety for the Study of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs, says the planned town can be seen as a re­sponse to oc­cu­pa­tion, con­fine­ment and Is­rael’s sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier in the West Bank. “It’s a way to get out of the prison cul­ture, the walls cul­ture. Peo­ple have to ex­pand on their own ter­ri­tory and this comes to meet some of their ex­pec­ta­tions.”

Bashar al-Masri

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