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A $1 billion bet on peace: Qatar funds huge Palestinian settlement in West Bank

Paul Goldman / NBC News

The new settlement under construction at Rawabi.

RAWABI, West Bank — As gambles go, it hardly gets bigger: A $1 billion dollar bet on peace — or at least a measure of calm — in the West Bank.

Even the founder of Rawabi, the biggest construction project in the history of the Palestinian people, says nobody in his right mind would invest here.

Standing on a wind-swept hilltop overlooking the biblical hills of Judea, a half-hour drive from Ramallah, Bashar Al-Masri points to the Palestinian flags flying atop the giant cranes that are building, with phenomenal speed, the first modern Palestinian town.

"As a teenager, raising the Palestinian flag was enough to be shot and killed," he says, immaculate in a form-hugging, thin-lapelled dark suit and narrow burgundy tie.

"This is a small, symbolic way of how long we came along, and how much we will come along in the future," adds Al-Masri, who as a teenager threw stones at Israeli soldiers.

The largest flag is mounted on a pole facing the Jewish settlement of Atteret, a community of about a hundred families located across a small valley.

The flag is a deliberate statement.

"So that we can show our unfriendly neighbors who were violently against us that we're here, and we're here to stay, and we're not afraid of you, we will remain here," Al-Masri says.

Two-thirds of the investment in this town comes from the government of Qatar’s investment fund, Al-Masri explains. The design, planning and construction are all by Palestinians, with outside help, and what appears to make him proudest of all, he says, there is no input from Israel.

He says there are more than 8,000 families interested in moving in, and the first few hundred apartments will go on the market in March, with the town’s inauguration in May. The cost of the apartments, depending on size and location, is between $75,000 and $140,000.

"This is about nation-building, this is about doing what’s right, this is my contribution that I know the best," says Al-Masri. "The human rights activists have their contribution, the [Palestinian Authority] people are building capacity and building the government, we're all together as the Palestinian people building a state."

There are two main practical problems for the new town. All the water has to be piped in, and there is no obvious source. “We are in this project, putting facts on the ground, and things will have to follow,” is Al-Masri’s answer, hoping for a miracle.

And access. The only road to Rawabi passes through what is known as Area C: that part of the West Bank that is fully controlled by Israel, administratively and militarily. It is a narrow, winding road that the Palestinians can use only with an Israeli permit, which must be renewed each year.

Al-Masri talks of a tunnel through the hills linking Rawabi with Ramallah, barely visible on the horizon. Will that ever happen? "Probably not,” he admits. "It’s a problem."

Paul Goldman / NBC News

The view to Rawabi from the nearby Jewish settlement of Atteret.

On the nearest hill, looking at Rawabi from Atteret, the manager of the Jewish settlement, Noam Aharon, agrees. "They throw stones at us," he says, talking about young Palestinians. "Just last month they smashed my windscreen. Stones can kill. And if they try to kill us, we will kill them."

"What do you think of their new town?"

"It spoils the view. But they can have it — they can do what they want, as long as we can live here in peace. If we can’t, neither can they."

Leap of faith
Building a new town out of this scraggly, dry wilderness — from where on a clear day you can see the towers of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea — is a leap of faith, which al-Al-Masri does not deny.

It is being built against the opposition of many Palestinians who see any peaceful project as a way of affirming the status quo with Israel, of denying the Palestinian struggle.

"Of course I believe, I must believe that there will be peace with Israel, and it’s a matter of time," he says. "The majority of Israeli people, at least 70 percent, want a Palestinian state. So, peace is possible. It just requires the right leaders."  

So what percentage of Palestinians want peace with Israel?

"The vast majority. I'm certain of that."

Rawabi looks much more like an Israeli middle-class town than a Palestinian city: It will have high-rises, an outside theater to seat 20,000, soccer fields and cinemas and a theater, a swimming pool, a pedestrian precinct in the city center, bars and shopping malls.

All it needs now is people, water and a larger access road.

But the statement the project makes may be as important as the facts on the ground. It says that, between a failed peace process and a possible third intifada, there is a third way: Building Palestine from the bottom up.

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List", "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel".


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