Rawabi | Palestine’s First Planned City

The hilltop city of Rawabi is Qatar’s gift to the people of Palestine at a time of uncertainty

The road to Rawabi, Palestine’s first planned city, is similar to the entrance of an exclusive gated suburb without the gates. Carefully placed olive trees and rustic stones accent the smooth pavement lead to the real estate project. But Rawabi’s precarious location in the heart of the West Bank is impossible to conceal. Scars of Israel’s 44-year-old occupation litter the otherwise serene landscape surrounding the project.

The 20-minute drive north from Ramallah, the de-facto capital of the Occupied West Bank, to the new city is dotted with empty Israeli military checkpoints, eerie memorials of the bitter fighting of the Second Intifada (2000-05). Rawabi’s modest entrance is marked by a series of discreet signs, small enough that passing Israeli settlers can ignore the project’s existence altogether.

Rawabi is a break from the Palestinian urban past. Where once small villages tucked themselves neatly into arid mountainsides, Rawabi sits squarely on top of a mountain in a manner similar to Israeli settlement architecture. It is not only the similarity in planning that Rawabi has to Israeli colonial construction that has Palestinians worried, Rawabi has become a political chip in the constant battle of legitimacy that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is waging in the West Bank.

Primarily, Rawabi is used as evidence that the Palestinians are ready for foreign capital investment and statehood. However, the facts on the ground suggest that the two-state solution is all but dead given Israel’s accelerated pace of occupation entrenchment in the West Bank. For some Palestinians, Rawabi has come to represent, not progress, but the corruption and out of touch thinking which has lead to the dismal situation in Palestine.

Rawabi’s promise of a modern planned city, where young families can live, grow and work, is a 180-degree turn from what most Palestinians have come to expect in an urban environment

Inside the Rawabi construction site hundreds of workers and city planners, each wearing carefully selected neon safety vests and helmets blazing Rawabi’s cheerful logo, are busy building over 5000 residential units spread across 23 neighbourhoods connected by commercial and business centres as well as parks and playgrounds. On clear days, the Mediterranean coast and the skyline of Tel Aviv glimmer in the distance along with the Israeli settlement of Atara, perched on an adjacent hilltop. The architecture of the project is decidedly Middle Eastern but not in a Palestinian way. The virtual models, which are handsomely displayed on iPads in Rawabi’s sales office, show a project best suited for Dubai or possibly the outskirts of Tel Aviv, not the placid rolling hills of Palestine.

Impossibly cut from a pristine mountaintop, Rawabi’s visual similarity to an Israeli settlement is undeniable. Palestinian cities are traditionally built into the landscape, using mountaintops for wind and element protection while Israeli settlements are placed on the very top of mountains for maximum visibility and security. For a society steeped in conservative values, Rawabi’s promise of a modern planned city, where young families can live, grow and work, is a 180-degree turn from what most Palestinians have come to expect in an urban environment.

More and more people in Palestine are coalescing around the idea of sustainability as a vehicle to independence as tactical urbanism projects have cropped up throughout the territory. The polar opposite of Rawabi’s vision, a new wave of businesspeople, architects, designers and urban planners are looking at the contested spaces that dominate the rugged terrain of the West Bank as a platform for radical independent growth. The problems presented by the occupation are increasingly viewed as engines of creative urban innovation as opposed to formidable obstacles.

From a Ramallah-based design studio that is building furniture out of reclaimed waste materials in order to highlight independence from Israel to a Palestinian NGO documenting and preserving long neglected Palestinian villages, there is a growing movement in Palestine that rejects the need for new materials or cities, focusing instead on the existing. There are even green energy firms, which are harnessing the power of geothermal heating and cooling in order to wean off of Israeli energy dependence.

In recent months, Rawabi launched a large billboard campaign throughout the West Bank with eye-catching projections of the new city throughout. In a sign of the growing discontent with the project, a Rawabi billboard in downtown Ramallah was quickly defaced and now carries the graffiti, “where the Palestinian cause goes to die,” across the bottom of it.

With roughly $750 million in funding from private Qatari companies, the project enjoys the backing of Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and prime minister Salam Fayyad. Palestine’s largest ever building project has become a political vehicle carrying the message that Palestinians are ready for their own independent state. Most, if not all, independent political activists see Rawabi as a display of the mainstream establishment’s power and reach.

“We are living for today’s politics,” Amir Dajani, the deputy director of Rawabi, told me on a recent visit to the sprawling construction project. “If the political environment improves then you will see Rawabi two and three. If the political environment deteriorates and it is in a state of limbo, then we may have to reconsider our plans and maybe slow down part of the construction.”

Planned cities are difficult to create anywhere on the planet, but in Palestine, Rawabi has come to represent the confusion plaguing urban development under Israeli occupation. One concern is that the project is driving forward at a time when the Palestinian body politic is fragmented and listless after the fighting of the Second Intifada.

When the first residents move into Rawabi at the end of the 2013, they will still be under Israeli occupation. Despite the modern amenities and promises of quiet middle class life, an occupying military force will still govern their lives. In Palestine, planned cities can’t break political deadlock but they can start a new debate about the nature of urbanism under occupation.

—Joseph Dana

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