The first Palestinian planned city

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Developers have broken ground for what could be the first Palestinian planned community in the West Bank. Daniel Estrin reports from the site of the future city of Rawabi.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad recently announced that he plans to build institutions and prepare for an independent statehood whether or not peace talks progress. One project is already getting underway. Construction crews have broken ground on what's believed to be the first Palestinian planned community in the West Bank. Daniel Estrin reports from the site of the future city of Rawabi.

DANIEL ESTRIN: Just a few weeks ago this view overlooking the West Bank hills was serene and empty. Now backhoes pierce the rocky ground. For Amir Dajani, Deputy Director of the Bayti Real Estate Company, it's music to the ears.

AMIR DAJANI: Wow, this is massive. You see, one is breaking the stone and the other one is collecting it on the side.

DANIEL ESTRIN: Dajani expects work crews to lay the foundations by April. He estimates that by 2013 the new city of Rawabi could welcome its first residents. The head of the project is Bashar Masri. He's a Palestinian entrepreneur who built housing developments in other Arab countries when the Palestinian uprising broke out a decade ago. But a couple of years ago as the violence in the West Bank began to abate, Masri decided to build back home. He sits at a lemon colored glass desk in his office in Ramallah. He can't resist taking one more call before we talk. He shuts the window shutters with a small remote control. His slick office sets the tone for his future city. Functional, state of the art, and a little bit cool.

BASHAR MASRI: The Palestinian yuppies I think is more of a description of the Rawabi initial inhabitant.

DANIEL ESTRIN: Masri's idea is to attract young, upwardly mobile families who want to own a home away from the chaos of crowded cities like Ramallah or Nablus.

BASHAR MASRI: We're going after people who have jobs. They studied in English as well as Arabic. Quite a few of them have traveled. Most of them have Facebook and they understand a different type of world than their parents did. Those people would like to live what they see as the modern life.

DANIEL ESTRIN: The blueprints promise a pedestrian only city center with banks, shops and cafes, surrounded by town houses and apartment buildings to house up to 40,000 residents. There are playgrounds, nature trails, a small hospital, a few mosques, a church, a movie theater and the developers are planning some additional features unheard of in West Bank cities, like a recycling program and homeowner associations. The Qatari government is bankrolling this $700,000,000.00 venture. But mounting a project like this in the West Bank requires patience. Part of the land selected for the city belonged to 2,700 different Palestinian landowners living all over the world. It took Masri about two years to persuade them to sell.

BASHAR MASRI: I recall having to wait three months because a lady who sold us her land lives in Basra and at the time there was a military operation there. There was fighting there basically and couldn't get the papers out.

DANIEL ESTRIN: It's also been a challenge to figure out what the new city should look like. Many potential buyers have made it clear that they don't want Rawabi to resemble a West Bank Jewish settlement.

BASHAR MASRI: Well what the heck does a settlement look like? Settlements are mostly Palestinian-like homes, but they are built in an organized way. This is the difference. And on top of the mountain. Well, we're on top of the mountain. As far as organized, yes, it will be organized. I can't shoot myself in the foot because the settlements are organized; I'm not going to build an organized city.

DANIEL ESTRIN: Masri says Rawabi will be a mix of different looking buildings. Say a four story building right next to a seven story one. The layout will look like a modern version of the kind of close-knit neighborhood where Masri grew up.

BASHAR MASRI: Is that a western style? Absolutely it is. Is it an old Palestinian culture? You bet it is.

DANIEL ESTRIN: The enterprise excited Rami Nasrallah, a Palestinian urban planner. He says the Palestinians are naturally skeptical about promises of a better life. But he's banking on the success of Rawabi.

RAMI NASRALLAH: So this is one of the first steps to build a viable democratic Palestine. It means that the Palestinians are now engaged in a process of creating a new space of hope.

DANIEL ESTRIN: But like many new projects in the West Bank, Rawabi still faces hurdles. Masri is waiting for Israeli approval to build the planned access road to the city which would cut through Israeli controlled land. And he's also asked Israel to provide Rawabi with access to water. No final word on that either. But Masir isn't sitting around waiting. Just as Prime Minister Fayyad wants to prepare for statehood regardless of peace talks, Masri's backhoes continue chipping away at the hilltop. For The World, I'm Daniel Estrin, the site of the future city of Rawabi in the West Bank.

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