Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
As Rawabi continues to be built despite challenges, some tout it as a model for a Palestinian state. Others believe it hinders Palestinian rights.
Earlier this month, thousands of Palestinians flocked to the Roman-style amphitheater in Rawabi, Palestine’s first planned city. The enthusiastic, post-Ramadan crowd came to hear Palestinian singer and Arab Idol winner Muhammad Assaf belt out some of his most popular tunes.
Though the event was a success, Rawabi itself has struggled. The city, located about six miles north of Ramallah in the West Bank, aims to house 40,000 people, but only 300 families currently live in it. In May, the Guardian reported that only two of the 23 neighborhoods planned had been completed since work began in 2012. Rawabi has been likened to a ghost town, albeit an attractive and orderly one.
The wealthy Palestinian-American businessman Bashar al-Masri and a state-owned Qatari real estate company have partnered to finance Rawabi, with logistical help from the Palestinian Authority. Masri recently told Forbes that completing Rawabi will take another six to eight years. His plans include 5,000 apartments outfitted with gleaming fixtures and featuring underground parking and nearby playgrounds. Plans also include hotels, movie theaters, offices and businesses, schools, churches and mosques, and medical facilities. The goal is for Rawabi to be its own functioning city, not a suburb of Ramallah.
Rawabi is for Masri and those who support it a concrete example of what Palestine could someday be. “[Rawabi is] about nation-building,” Masri told Forbes. “Because if we don’t build in our country, who will?” One potential buyer from Ramallah told the BBC that Rawabi is a “first step to building a small model for a Palestinian state.”
Yet the fact that Palestine is not a state is a main reason Rawabi has had a hard time getting off the ground. Though the city is located in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, access to it lies through an area controlled by Israel. Getting water pipelined in took years of negotiation. Even now, with only a small number of people living in Rawabi, water usage is topping out.
There are other struggles as well. Although Rawabi was billed as providing affordable housing, and its apartments are reportedly less expensive than those in Ramallah, its prices are still beyond the means of most Palestinians.
For those who can afford it, Rawabi can be a relief from some of the challenges of living in the West Bank. “Ramallah residents interested in a place like Rawabi are exhausted by daily life under occupation as well as by a non-functional, dirty, and underserved urban form,” says the University of Chicago anthropologist Kareem Rabie, who has studied Rawabi.
Still, the construction of an elite Palestinian space is linked to a larger criticism of Rawabi, namely that it normalizes the occupation. Some activists worry places like Rawabi lead to more Palestinians becoming content with the status quo, especially when such places are constructed by working with Israel (Masri purchased much of Rawabi’s cement from an Israeli firm, for example).
Fundamentally, the reason Rawabi fascinates, attracts, and appalls so many is that it “represents different images of what Palestine can and ought to be, for different people with different politics,” says Rabie.