Waterless, the first planned Palestinian city sits empty

PA refuses to convene the Joint Water Committee, saying it would also benefit settlements, while Israel won’t connect Rawabi pipelines unilaterally

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

View of the construction site of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014.
View of the construction site of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014.

A year ago the construction of the first 700 housing units of the first planned Palestinian city, Rawabi, north of Ramallah, was completed. But none of the apartment owners have moved into their purchased homes since the newly built city has no access to water.

Why? It seems that the Israeli government is delaying the connection of the city to a water pipeline. Why? That’s difficult to explain.

At first glance, logic dictates that the quick populating of Rawabi would serve everyone: Palestinians and Israelis, even those on the right and the settlers. The explanation is simple: This is a city built at a higher standard than any other city in the West Bank, impressive even in comparison to cities in Israel. At least theoretically, Palestinians moving there would not want to take part in any sort of armed conflict with Israel, certainly not an intifada.

This city will create, and already has created, thousands of jobs that, again, will distance the workers from the cycle of violence. Therefore, the more Palestinians that move there, and into any subsequent projects, the less likely the danger of widespread conflict in the West Bank. For the Palestinians who have already purchased apartments in the city, it’s clear that a move to Rawabi will improve their standard of living and benefit them economically.

Evidently, however, some Israeli decision-makers don’t see it that way.

For many years, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon postponed approval to connect Rawabi to water, since he wanted the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee to approve water for the city as well as for several settlements. The goal was to regulate the Israeli-Palestinian water sector in a way that would not cause Israel any political problems in the future.

The Palestinians were not in favor. In their eyes, the convening of the committee (under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) is a way to obtain, via the PA and Rawabi, legitimacy for the allocation of water to the settlements.

View of the construction site of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi on February 23, 2014 (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
View of the construction site of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi on February 23, 2014 (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

To his credit, the defense minister was ultimately convinced of the necessity of populating the city, and three weeks ago unilaterally approved the connection of Rawabi to the sources of the Mekorot water company. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who is considered the sovereign Israeli government figure in the West Bank, urged that the project be completed as quickly as possible.

Mordechai was one of the initial proponents of supplying water to the city, primarily for the security interests it offers to Israel. But then, another political figure decided to intervene: Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water, Silvan Shalom, who is responsible for the water supply of Rawabi, is postponing the supply.

A tour of the upscale Palestinian city

There are many fine aspects to Rawabi. To start with, the level of design and precision of everything constructed here is outstanding. It boasts a magnificent amphitheater built for shows and concerts with a capacity of 15,000.

And, then there are the views, where one can see as far as the Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv and the Israeli coast, as well as Modiin and Ramallah.

An urban commercial center is currently being constructed and will include a seven-theater cinema, a swimming pool, a mall reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Mamilla, cafes and restaurants, and fashion boutiques.

A model of Rawabi's mosque in the visitors' center (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/times of Israel)
A model of Rawabi’s mosque in the visitors’ center (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Said the deputy CEO of Rawabi, Amir Dajani, second to the entrepreneur and founder of initiative Bashar al-Masri: “We want to build a new tourist destination. Instead of going to the Old City in Jerusalem or Nablus, or traveling to Jaffa, people will say: ‘Let’s go to Rawabi.'”

Based on the plans, there will also be a recreational center, a hotel with 250 rooms, a soccer and athletics stadium, three schools and a large medical center.

“Another one of our goals is to leverage the Palestinian economy,” he continued. “We’ve created 8,000 jobs here, from janitors to contractors. We have a cement and iron factory, and we will create permanent positions for 3,000-5,000 people: teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, businessmen. We will create a technological incubator; we will recruit workers from Birzeit University, which is five minutes away, and from al-Najah National University in Nablus, some 25 minutes away. Rawabi will be a magnet to pioneers.”

According to Dajani, the city will target educated, young middle-class couples.

“We are contributing to the construction of the Palestinian state. We want to build new cities, and the success of Rawabi will certainly positively influence the Palestinian economy,” he said.

When asked what other cities are in the works, Dajani smiles and dodges the question elegantly. “Let’s focus meanwhile on Rawabi’s success,” he responded.

“We are talking about a project that will shape history. One-third of our engineers and architects are women. This is unprecedented in the Arab and Palestinian world. This is a tremendous experience for them, to plan and build a city, just like the men. We started here from scratch, we had to think of everything: infrastructure, media, medical services, a fire department, education.

Dajani continued: “This is going to be an environmentally friendly city. We recycle everything here. There will be no satellite dishes on the rooftops, no water towers, such as you see in other Palestinian neighborhoods. A computerized system will see to the recycling of the water, and to use the excess drinking water to water the city parks. We purchased the most technologically advanced recycling system.

“Public transportation will run on electricity, will be free to the residents of the city, and only visitors will be asked to pay. We are also planning an industrial area, although we haven’t yet received the approval from the Israeli side. However, we have already paved the roads leading to it,” he added.

Apartment prices in Rawabi are not astronomical, not even compared to Ramallah or Bethlehem. “The simple apartments will cost around $80,000, and the prices will reach about $200,000, depending on the size, of course. Right now, in the first stage, there are medium-sized buildings, but in the next stage there will also be duplexes with gardens.

“Overall, we are planning 6,000 housing units, which will house some 25,000 people,” Dajani said.

What about luxury villas. “Villas? Let’s start with drinking water, then we can talk about villas.”

Pipes but no water

The huge initiative was launched in 2008. It began with the paving of several dirt roads, and slowly, a small and manicured city rose before the eyes of its neighbors — the village of Atara and the settlement of Atarot.

But it has been four years now that al-Masri and his deputy Dajani have been trying to get the approval of the authorities, both Israeli and Palestinian, to supply the city with water.

Palestinian entrepreneur Bashar al-Masri seen in front of a view of his residential project of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014 (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Palestinian entrepreneur Bashar al-Masri seen in front of a view of his residential project of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014 (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

“The water issue chases us like a dark cloud,” Dajani said.

We drive along the water line his men have set up in the areas under PA control (Area A), and Palestinian civilian control (Area B), until the place where the pipeline abruptly ends — precisely the spot that becomes Area C, under Israeli control. From here, the Israeli authorities have not permitted them to continue.

“I need a 3.5-km-long pipe to connect it to the Mekorot water company in Umm Safa. I have already set up a 2.4-km pipe through areas A and B. All I’m missing is the 1.1 kilometers that is supposed to go through Area C,” he said.

He pointed out the huge water reservoir, built about half a kilometer from the city, which is meant to ensure efficient water supply to its taps.

“We turned to the Palestinian Water Authority to obtain the Israeli approval in a way that would ensure we received water from a stable source, but to date, we have not received it. Why? I’m not a politician. I deal with the economy.”

The Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee is supposed to convene, in accordance with the 1995 interim agreements, to enable water supply to projects such as these, and to the settlements. But since 2010, the Palestinians have refused to convene the committee since they are not willing to approve water for settlements.

Meanwhile, it should be stressed, there is no delay in supplying water to the settlements — Mekorot connects any legal Jewish home in the West Bank to water. But the Israeli political leaders fear the future consequences of the committee failing to meet, such as allegations that Israel is “stealing” the water supply of the West Bank.

The completion of the first stage of construction in Rawabi was likely seen by Ya’alon as an opportunity to twist the arm of the PA. He delayed water approval in order to force the PA to agree to convene the Joint Water Committee, and approve the transfer of water to the settlements and Rawabi. But the PA has refused to play along.

Palestinian construction workers carve Jerusalem stones in the site of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014 (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Palestinian construction workers carve Jerusalem stones in the site of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, on February 23, 2014 (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

For the Palestinian politicians, too, Rawabi is a playing field. The PA doesn’t seem to care that this remarkable project is delayed, in part because it is a private initiative by a wealthy businessman who is not a member of the corrupt Palestinian political system. So the PA is standing its ground and refusing to hold the committee meeting.

Ultimately, as noted, Ya’alon recognized the positive potential for Israel that this city holds, and approved the water supply unilaterally. President Reuven Rivlin said this week that the water supply to Rawabi is an Israeli interest. But now Shalom is blocking it. He maintains that the issue must receive the approval of the joint committee.

“Minister Shalom and the Water Authority maintain that a unilateral approval without the convening of the committee, which several Israeli officials have been suggesting and pushing, will undermine the basis for regulating the continued operation of the Joint Water Committee. Moreover, in a broader political sense, the move will likely lead to the complete dissolution of the Israeli-Palestinian water agreements and harm the Israel water sector,” a statement from Shalom’s office said.

“In addition, it would harm the cooperation of the professional echelons, the cooperation that today helps protect our water sources and prevents damage to our aquifers. We would be happy if the Palestinians would change their minds and convene the committee, which will discuss projects on both sides,” the statement concluded.

And so Rawabi is still dry.

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