The ty­coon

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY WIL­LIAM BOOTH

“We will live like nor­mal peo­ple.” A de­vel­oper drafts a hill­top city for up­wardly mo­bile Pales­tini­ans.

rawabi, west bank — In the new­est city in the wannabe state of Pales­tine, the de­vel­oper Bashar Masri is putting the fin­ish­ing touches on his mall. Not just any mall. “A shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence,” as luxe as any in Is­rael, with as­pi­ra­tional sneak­ers, de­signer hand­bags, all the in­ter­na­tional brands never avail­able here be­fore.

Up­mar­ket con­sumer op­tions might be ho­hum news in most of the world, but this isn’t any other place.

This is the oc­cu­pied West Bank, a hor­net’s nest of a home to 2.6 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans and brigades of Is­raeli sol­diers and 400,000 Jewish set­tlers who have come to claim the land they say was awarded to them by his­tory and God.

Rawabi is the first planned city in the West Bank built by Pales­tini­ans for Pales­tini­ans, a $1.4 bil­lion me­trop­o­lis con­structed over the last nine years from bare rock.

The city is the most am­bi­tious project in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries and to­day is the largest pri­vate-sec­tor em­ployer here.

Masri is billing his city on a hill as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary act, a raised fist with a wal­let.

“We will live like nor­mal peo­ple,” he said, “un­til the sit­u­a­tion is nor­mal.”

As the Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank turns 50 years old in June, Is­rael will cel­e­brate the tak­ing of Jerusalem in its near-mirac­u­lous Six-Day War against Arab armies led by Egypt, Syria and Jor­dan.

On the other side of 26-foot-tall con­crete walls that sur­round Jerusalem, Pales­tini­ans will point to an oc­cu­pa­tion that now ap­pears to be never-end­ing, with its levers of con­trol ever present: the sep­a­ra­tion bar­ri­ers, per­mit regimes, crowded check­points.

If Pales­tini­ans can­not get per­mis­sion to spend their money in Is­raeli malls, Masri says, let them shop in Rawabi. That is how you build a state. “And why not?” he said. “We’ve earned it.” Rawabi is the coun­ternar­ra­tive in the for­ever con­flict in which Pales­tini­ans are of­ten por­trayed as ter­ror­ist or vic­tim, liv­ing in refugee camps or dusty vil­lages out of bib­li­cal times.

The Pales­tini­ans Masri has in mind? All the up­wardly mo­bile den­tists, Web de­sign­ers and mid­dle man­agers who don’t make the news.

The half-built city of Rawabi has been a me­dia dar­ling for years, a tour-bus des­ti­na­tion for vis­it­ing Nor­we­gian diplo­mats, Har­vard Busi­ness School schol­ars, Arab ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, ad­ven­ture­some Amer­i­can Jews, and most re­cently Cold­play — be­cause noth­ing like this has been tried here be­fore.

This is what a new Pales­tinian state could look like, says Masri, a me­trop­o­lis with a 15,000-seat Ro­man-style am­phithe­ater, host­ing Broad­way shows like “Cats,” with Pales­tinian techies typ­ing code for Is­raeli com­pa­nies and chil­dren learn­ing crisp dic­tion in the Bri­tish-style Rawabi English Academy.

Masri be­lieves that if he of­fers his peo­ple Zumba classes, they will come.

Or it could all fall apart.

Shop­ping for a new nor­mal

The grand open­ing of Rawabi’s “Q Cen­ter” — named af­ter the city’s Qatari back­ers — is just days away at the end of May, and the open-air prom­e­nade was swarm­ing with Pales­tinian con­struc­tion crews. Sparks were fly­ing in the night air. Work­ers go­ing round the clock, hang­ing signs, stock­ing shelves. Masri was a blur of mo­tion, barking at the engi­neers trail­ing be­hind with clip­boards and walkie-talkies.

If his mall suc­ceeds, Masri told me, if his busi­ness cen­ter suc­ceeds, there is com­merce, there are jobs and peo­ple.

Masri also said Rawabi could col­lapse if the Is­raeli mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment, which runs most of the West Bank, de­cides to turn off the wa­ter or elec­tric­ity, again. The Is­raelis could shut down the ac­cess roads, too. They’ve done it be­fore.

Masri opened his lap­top to show me a photo sent by a res­i­dent the day be­fore. There were four Is­raeli sol­diers and a jeep pulled across Rawabi’s main en­trance road, a “fly­ing check­point,” tem­po­rary but omi­nous to Pales­tini­ans, who are forced to show IDs, open their trunks and ex­plain them­selves — just to get home.

The Is­rael De­fense Forces say they rou­tinely erect such check­points to search for weapons, sus­pects and con­tra­band.

“Two, three, four weeks of this? One jeep with Is­raeli teenagers in uni­form? That will kill us,” Masri said.

Rawabi could also fail if Pales­tini­ans de­cide they don’t want what Masri is sell­ing.

The Pales­tinian mul­ti­mil­lion­aire and his Qatari part­ners are do­ing all this to make money, for sure.

But they also say let the women of Rawabi jog, with or with­out veils or fear of so­cial cen­sure. And give the res­i­dents speed bumps, yoga classes and the first and only home­owner’s as­so­ci­a­tion in the West Bank.

Masri said the of­ten in­vis­i­ble Pales­tinian mid­dle class de­serves the $125,000, three-bed­room apart­ments in Rawabi, for sale now at 4.95 per­cent mort­gage rates, next to a mall stocked with real Wran­gler Advanced Com­fort Re­laxed Fit Jeans, not the coun­ter­feits you find in the bazaars of Ramallah.

If Rawabi thrives? Masri envisions many more Rawabis.

Suc­ces­sive Amer­i­can pres­i­dents strug­gled and failed to make a per­ma­nent peace be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans.

Don­ald Trump, the real es­tate ty­coon with the global brand who be­came pres­i­dent, has said he wants to try again, to strike “the tough­est deal in the world.”

Maybe Trump should hear the strug­gles of Bashar Masri. Be­cause at its core, the Is­rael-Pales­tine con­flict is noth­ing if not a real es­tate story.

The for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael, Daniel Shapiro, said if Trump wants to see one piece of the puz­zle, he should come to Rawabi.

The two devel­op­ers would have some­thing to talk about.

‘Maybe too quiet?’

As the Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion be­gins its sixth decade, what does it feel like, not just to the Pales­tinian la­borer ne­go­ti­at­ing with an Is­raeli sol­dier at a check­point — but a Pales­tinian master of the uni­verse like Masri, who com­mutes in pri­vate jets and hosted the for­mer U.N. sec­re­tary gen­eral for lunch at Rawabi? “I hate the oc­cu­pa­tion,” Masri said. “It’s evil.” When he was a teenager, Masri shot the fin­ger at Is­raeli sol­diers. Now he is one of the rich­est men in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries.

When he was young, he went to the United States, got his de­gree in chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing at Vir­ginia Tech, mar­ried an Amer­i­can, had two daugh­ters, and was awarded U.S. cit­i­zen­ship. “I love Amer­ica,” Masri said. But he came home to the West Bank in the 1990s. “I dreamed there would be a Pales­tinian state,” he said.

He thought ev­ery­one would come home to build it. “But hon­estly there weren’t many,” he said.

The master plan for Rawabi calls for 8,000 homes and a pop­u­la­tion of 40,000 on the hill­top, sur­rounded by ar­eas that to­day are un­der par­tial or com­plete con­trol — civil or se­cu­rity — of the Is­raeli mil­i­tary.

If com­pleted, Rawabi will be big­ger than all but a hand­ful of the 126 Jewish set­tle­ments in the West Bank — com­mu­ni­ties that are branded il­le­gal by most of the world, although Is­rael dis­putes this.

Masri says his apart­ments are sell­ing briskly and that 3,000 peo­ple live in Rawabi to­day.

But dur­ing my vis­its, his city felt empty to me

— hope­ful but lone­some.

Only three of the neigh­bor­hoods are fin­ished, and con­struc­tion is on­go­ing. In the evenings I walked around the ter­raced blocks and counted cars in park­ing lots and lights on in the liv­ing rooms. There weren’t many.

I met Ji­had Kmail and his wife, Is­raa Sar­sour, a young mar­ried cou­ple, both ar­chi­tects, with a tod­dler. They moved here from Ramallah, where prices for new apart­ments are even higher.

They said they liked the moder­nity, safety and or­der of Rawabi. They be­lieve in their in­vest­ment.

“But we don’t know whether Rawabi will suc­ceed or not,” Sar­sour said. They were hope­ful but ner­vous. “It’s nice. But maybe too quiet?”

In the days be­fore Masri’s mall opens, the whole project feels as ten­ta­tive as the Pales­tinian dream for a state.

“The oc­cu­pa­tion is not de­signed to make Pales­tini­ans suc­cess­ful,” Masri said.

Risk is writ­ten all over the project. It’s not just the Is­raelis.

The Pales­tini­ans could launch an­other up­ris­ing. Pales­tinian youth, goosed by in­cite­ment on Face­book, per­sonal trauma, men­tal ill­ness, dreams of par­adise or na­tion­al­ist fer­vor, could start stab­bing and ram­ming their fam­ily cars into Jews again — or Ha­mas cells could kid­nap Is­raeli teens, as they did in the sum­mer of 2014, which sparked the last of three Gaza wars. Vi­o­lence al­most de­railed Rawabi be­fore. It is tough to mar­ket high-end apart­ments to Pales­tini­ans dur­ing Gaza wars or pris­oner hunger strikes or “days of rage” de­clared by the Pales­tinian Author­ity.

It is also pos­si­ble that the Pales­tini­ans will not em­brace Masri’s vi­sion of a Western-style mid­dle-class utopia.

Maybe they re­ally don’t want eques­trian cen­ters or Hugo Boss or a wine cave.

The seeds of am­bi­tion

Masri works out of a small mo­bile home at the edge of the con­struc­tion site. Out­side the win­dow, he can watch the minaret of Rawabi’s new mosque rise to­ward the heav­ens.

He has also set aside land for a Chris­tian church. Masri wants Rawabi to be 10 per­cent Pales­tinian Chris­tian.

He has a desk barely big enough to hold a lap­top. For lunch, he picked at a plate of let­tuce leaves and asked, “Where do you want me to be­gin?”

He was born and raised in nearby Nablus, an an­cient city with crum­bling palaces, a fa­mous bazaar and a rep­u­ta­tion for re­sis­tance. His fa­ther was a suc­cess­ful physi­cian. “A well-off fam­ily,” Masri said. When he was a teenager in the 1970s, Masri par­tic­i­pated in vi­o­lent de­mon­stra­tions against the Is­raelis. He was a youth or­ga­nizer, bur­nished by ar­rest and jail by age 15.

“The Is­raeli sol­diers beat the crap out of me,” he said.

In prison, the old men in the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion taught him Marx and Lenin.

“I was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” he said. “I thought cap­i­tal­ism was the ul­ti­mate evil.”

He sees the irony, of course. This is why he is telling the anec­dote.

As a young man, he also served as an aide to Yasser Arafat. When Arafat’s plane landed at An­drews Air Force Base in 2000, a visit that would end with the col­lapse of the Camp David peace talks, Masri said he was the Pales­tinian who opened the jet’s door.

Hunt for land and cash

“Who else is crazy enough to build a city?” Masri is ped­al­ing his ex­er­cise bi­cy­cle and hold­ing forth.

Masri said he made a for­tune build­ing low­in­come hous­ing in Morocco and made se­ri­ous cash with projects in Libya, Egypt and Jor­dan.

He found enough land for his city near the Pales­tinian de facto cap­i­tal in Ramallah, but Masri said a sym­pa­thetic Is­raeli mil­i­tary of­fi­cial told him it would never be ap­proved, ever, be­cause it was too close to Ofra, one of the West Bank’s first Jewish set­tle­ments, whose mem­bers have deep con­nec­tions to the Is­raeli es­tab­lish­ment.

“So okay, I thought, let’s go pick on a set­tle­ment more my own size,” Masri said.

An old friend showed Masri the hill­top that would be­come Rawabi.

There were thou­sands of own­ers of the land, heirs of plots dat­ing from the Ot­toman era, sub­di­vided over gen­er­a­tions, many liv­ing abroad in the Pales­tinian di­as­pora.

This is the only part of his nar­ra­tive where Masri ex­presses re­morse. He and the Pales­tinian Author­ity em­ployed eminent do­main for some prop­er­ties, al­low­ing them to seize land and pay for it.

There’s still bad blood in the sur­round­ing Pales­tinian vil­lages. Masri also needed money, too. A lot. He went on the road, tak­ing 73 meet­ings be­fore he struck gold with the Qatari Diar Real Es­tate In­vest­ment Com­pany. It put up twothirds of the money.

With land and money, Masri needed a road to the site to do the ex­ca­va­tion work that would take six years. The road to Rawabi goes through Area C, the 60 per­cent of the West Bank where the Is­raeli mil­i­tary has com­plete con­trol — not just se­cu­rity but build­ing per­mits.

It took four years to get per­mis­sion from the Is­raelis to pave the road.

Get­ting wa­ter was harder. The Is­raelis re­fused to pro­vide Rawabi with wa­ter be­cause the Pales­tinian Author­ity re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in a Joint Wa­ter Com­mit­tee, which ap­proved wa­ter for Pales­tinian vil­lages and Jewish set­tle­ments.

Masri said Rawabi was about to col­lect $120 mil­lion for apart­ments that were sold, but 452 of the 639 buy­ers can­celed their deals when Is­rael balked on wa­ter.

Solv­ing the wa­ter prob­lem took 18 months and was raised in the White House, ac­cord­ing to Masri, not once, but twice in meet­ings be­tween Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Is­rael’s prime min­is­ter, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu.

One of Rawabi’s engi­neers is Sha­dia Jara­dat, 29, and on a re­cent af­ter­noon, she showed her top-floor apart­ment off to a vis­it­ing Har­vard pro­fes­sor and his kids. “We de­serve this life­style,” she told me. Across the street, the con­struc­tion crews were ham­mer­ing out the fin­ish­ing touches on the mall with 28 stores and dozens of in­ter­na­tional brands, with cin­e­mas, night­clubs and cafes to come. “I al­ways be­lieve we will make it,” Jara­dat said. “If I don’t be­lieve, even for a minute, I will lose all my en­ergy,” she said. “So I be­lieve.”


En­ter­tain­ers adorn the up­per walls of a 15,000-seat am­phithe­ater, top, in the half-built Rawabi.

The fate of the West Bank city, above, may hinge on the Is­raeli mil­i­tary, which has the power to shut down the city’s util­i­ties and ac­cess roads.


“We don’t know whether Rawabi will suc­ceed or not,” says ar­chi­tect Is­raa Sar­sour, who lives here with hus­band Ji­had Kmail and son Mah­moud.

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