The city of Rawabi has not made it to conventional atlases or a prominent mention in international media, but it is shaping up as a point of tension between Israel and the Palestine Authority.
Last evening it was the center piece in a discussion on prime time television. The guest was Bashar al-Masri (or Massar), a Palestinian American and offspring of a prominent Nablus clan. He heads Massar Industries, a real estate development concern with a track record in several countries. His current project is building the new city of Rawabi midway between Ramallah and Nablus. It is a joint venture with a company owned by the government of Qatar, and is meant to house 40,000 people.
Israelis of various persuasions bless the venture as advancing economic development in the West Bank and giving the Palestinians something else to lose if their regime is taken over by those who aspire to wipe Israel off the map. However, there is opposition in Israel to the insistence of developers that companies working on the project not use products that originate in what al-Masri describes as the Jewish settlements of East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Some Israeli companies have agreed to participate in the construction of Rawabi and the boycott. So far that has produced sharp criticism that might escalate into the kind of pressure on the Israeli companies that al-Masri has already experienced.
al-Masri's appearance on prime time provided yet another example of ongoing politics in a public forum. He described his hope of profiting from an investment in Palestine that would also contribute to peace. Yet he spoke with the certainty--bordering on arrogance--of an entrepreneur who was certain of his political values. He described the West Bank and East Jerusalem as Palestinian, and expressed the conventional view of an illegal Israeli occupation. Not for him the subtleties of an area in dispute. He described the whole world as opposed to Israeli occupation, and said that his boycott of settlement industries was no different from that instituted by the European Union.
Neither of those points is quite true. The whole world has not the mechanism to express anything, much less implement what may flow from it. And the EU has demanded that Israel label products with the name of the locale as well as the country. Some Europeans may choose to boycott goods labeled as coming from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but the EU is a long way from a general boycott.
al-Masri presented his perspective as obviously justified and reflecting a view that was economic rather than political. Then he expressed wonder when describing the problems of politics getting in the way of approvals from Israel that are necessary to his project. Prominent among the items is a road from Ramallah to the construction site, which would pass through areas assigned to Israeli control by the Oslo Accords.
A description of the territorial realities:
"the traditional northbound road to Nablus, from the northern suburb of el-Bireh, is permanently blocked by Israeli military obstacles, set up to protect the nearby Jewish settlement of Beit El.
The current alternative route is clearly inadequate for a town of 40,000 - it crosses over a narrow land bridge where no two trucks can pass at the same time."
Some Israelis as well as others will consider the dragging of Israeli feet on al-Masri's request for a road to be unfair. Israeli activists and powerful governments may weigh in on the side of flexibility. A realist will think of contrasting pressures.
There is a limit to what Israel can do about Europeans or North Americans who pressure concerns, universities, or investment boards to boycott or disinvest. However, the developers of Rawabi and Israeli companies that would cooperate with their boycott are close at hand. One might say they are under an Israeli thumb.
As in other elements of the conflict, their are many factors likely to influence outcomes. Each side's claims of justice are not much more than decoration. al-Masri himself requires a Israeli visa to pass through Israel on his way to the West Bank. His city needs a road. He may think of Gaza as currently outside of his framework, but an escalation of rocket attacks will not help his cause. If he needs a reminder of Israeli resolve, he should notice that the IDF has returned to its tactic of targeted killing. Yesterday one of its rockets hit the motorcycle of a prominent Islamic activist said to be involved in firing those rockets.
The prime minister reasserts his commitment to peace. He has urged Mahmoud Abbas to travel 10 kilometers from Ramallah to Jerusalem rather than all the way to South America in search of a Palestinian state.
Politics is a condition where one hand washes the other. So far, neither Abbas nor al-Masri has chosen the most useful soap.
Not all of what we experience is politics and pressure. Today the heavens smiled on both Israel and Palestine--and the East Jerusalem claimed by both--with a sunrise worthy of praise.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at January 11, 2011 10:00 PM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem