Building Palestinian Democracy, One Brick at a Time

Palestinian businessman Bashar al-Masri has a plan for building democracy on the West Bank. And it's not really about politics.


Rising from the desolate hills north of the West Bank city of Ramallah is Rawabi, an ambitious housing project aspiring to be the first "high-tech city" in Palestine. The project launched in 2007 and is financed to the tune of a billion dollars from the Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar. This coming fall, Rawabi will welcome its first inhabitants to move into state-of-the-art, eco-friendly, high-rise apartment buildings outfitted with solar panels and rooftop rainwater collection systems — and if all goes according to plan, it will take in 40,000 new inhabitants in the next 10 years. As the largest Palestinian construction project to date, Rawabi has already been a boon to the local economy, providing 4,000 on-site jobs.

The project is the brainchild of the 53-year-old Palestinian multimillionaire Bashar al-Masri, who calls it the first stage of a Marshall Plan for Palestine. The development includes a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater for theatrical events and rock concerts, a soccer stadium, two schools, mosques, and churches. Masri (pictured in the photo above) is even planning for a movie megaplex that will screen the latest international films, something unavailable elsewhere in the Palestinian territories. "People will come here from Ramallah. It will be a cultural hub, featuring theater and arts from all over the world," Masri, who confesses a particular fondness for opera, boasts.

One could easily accuse Masri of indulging in the sales hype common to real estate developers around the world. But Masri has something much more ambitious in mind. As long-awaited Palestinian statehood draws closer to realization, notables like Masri are acknowledging that they can’t simply wait for their political leaders to do all the work. "For too many years, we’ve been blaming our situation with the Israelis and the corruption that existed within our own government, without moving forward," he says. "Palestinians need to push ahead despite the occupation and help develop our society, economy, and democracy. We cannot remain tethered to international donors. The day after independence we must have something to show the international community."

He makes a good case. But will conditions in this notoriously volatile corner of the world allow him to make his vision a reality? Though Palestinian leaders continue to press for a full-fledged, genuinely independent state, the likelihood of a peace deal remains elusive. As the failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent peace initiative demonstrates, tensions in the region are rising. Violence on both sides has increased over the last few months. Over 100 rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel’s southern cities, and Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and incursions in the West Bank have resulted in the deaths of several Palestinians. While some Palestinians may take heart from the unity deal under discussion by the long-warring factions of Fatah and Hamas, Israelis are sure to react with skepticism.

Whatever happens on the path to a new status for Palestinians, members of the far-flung Palestinian diaspora are likely to play a key role — and Masri’s own experience as a member of that diaspora is crucial to any understanding of his lifelong struggle. Growing up as part of a prominent family in the West Bank town of Nablus, he joined anti-Israel protests starting from an early age. "I saw the Israelis throw many of my friends in jail, and I went to jail three times myself," Masri recalls. His father, a doctor, moved the family to the United States in the late 1970s. Masri eventually earned a degree in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech, and soon found himself with a comfortable life and a successful career at a Washington, D.C., consulting company.

But then, in 1993, came the Oslo Peace Accords, which drew Masri back to his homeland. He formed an investment company, Massar International, and used it as the vehicle for a series of ambitious projects around the Middle East. While Oslo foundered, Masri burnished his credentials. He remained in Ramallah, temporarily focusing his efforts on other projects in the region, making millions with major investment projects that included affordable housing in Morocco, commercial and residential developments in Jordan, and a residential and recreational real estate project in Egypt. In 1999, the World Economic Forum named him one of its "Global Leaders of Tomorrow" for regional projects that addressed issues beyond his immediate professional interests.

A running theme in Masri’s work on the West Bank has been the use of economic development as an engine of civic consciousness. "The idea is to give Palestinians some hope that we can create more equality, and thereby build a more democratic Palestine from the grassroots level," he says. "It’s our responsibility as citizens to help build a model state from scratch, and I’m asking Palestinians from the private sector to help this country move forward."

One of the most intriguing examples of this approach involves the creation of something rather banal: homeowners associations, which do not yet exist in the West Bank. Masri sees the creation of a class of Palestinian homeowners as a small yet significant step toward democracy. As many Palestinians struggle to find affordable homes, Masri argues that home ownership is essential to building a middle class that will help foster the growth of a liberal society. A few years ago, Masri helped lead a successful campaign to create a 25-year mortgage option for homeowners. He also lobbied Palestinian banks, convincing them to reduce down payments (from 25 percent to 10 percent) for first-time homeowners.

Residents of Rawabi will be required to pay into the homeowners associations that preside over every few hundred units. The city will hold elections and form committees through which the representatives can deal with various issues that arise within the communities. The elected representatives will deal with everything from trash cleanup and playground and landscape upkeep to more complex projects, like working with homeowners who want to set up businesses in the neighborhoods. "This is real democracy in practice on a small scale," Masri says. He freely admits that Rawabi alone will not solve the problem of the tens of thousands of low-income families looking for homes; indeed, many may ultimately require some form of government assistance. But Masri hopes that his experiment will make a start, setting a potentially notable example.

And he believes that Rawabi can serve as a salutary example in another way as well. He envisions it as a kind of Palestinian Silicon Valley, one that can prevent the debilitating brain drain of Palestine’s highly educated youth, who face an unemployment rate of over 20 percent in the West Bank. Many members of the younger generation have college degrees, says Masri, and he notes that many of them in Ramallah face serious overcrowding and a severe shortage of proper housing. "We have a shortage of over 200,000 homes in Palestine, and it’s projected to grow to 400,000 in 10 years. Home ownership is an essential first step to enable our young generation to be free to produce great things for their country."

Masri and his associates are working feverishly to attract the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google, and other major technolog
y companies. "We really want many of the same high-tech firms that are in Israel and Egypt and Jordan to come," he says, his voice tinged with desperation. But convincing the tech giants that this is the right time to invest is easier said than done.

Their caution is understandable. The impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority is just one of the many complications that make Masri’s project seem utopian. Just take the problem of water. Israel controls the supply of water to the West Bank, and the Israelis have repeatedly delayed conclusion of an agreement that would enable the construction of a pipeline to supply Rawabi. That, in turn, has resulted in the repeated postponement of move-in dates for the city’s would-be residents.

Nor are the Israelis the only ones making Masri’s life difficult. Fellow Palestinians have denounced it as a pet project of the Israelis and Americans. Some even describe it derisively as a "Palestinian settlement," bashing Masri for relying on Israeli supplies, and calling the project a land grab for Masri’s personal financial gain. Masri maintains that he has very limited options, and that he’s had no choice but to use some Israeli products.

The Palestinian authorities aren’t terribly helpful, either. Projects on this scale in other parts of the world often receive government support, but the Palestinian Authority, Masri says, has been very slow to support his initiative. The PA has yet to deliver on a 2008 pledge to supply basic infrastructure in Rawabi, which Masri estimates would cost about $150 million. "There are a lot of reasons why the Authority has moved so slowly: the occupation, Israel’s refusal to release tax revenues, the corruption that existed within our own government." Yet he also pleads for understanding, noting that the PA is still "young" and beset with countless problems.

Others aren’t quite so forgiving. One former high-level PA official, who spoke on background out of fear of retribution, said that the government has essentially been moribund for years. The last election took place in 2006, he notes, and the Palestinian Parliament met for the last time the year after that. "President [Mahmoud] Abbas is passing laws by presidential decree, and has used the excuse of the split with Hamas for too long," says the former PA staffer. "There’s no doubt it’s a difficult situation, but this is not a reason for more authoritarian rule. People have been detained for long periods for Facebook status statements against the president. We’re at the seven-year mark; this is very dangerous. Palestinian teenagers are growing up, and all they know is this authoritarian-style government."

The former PA representative feels that Palestinians like Masri have no choice but to do what they are doing. "If we’re all just going to wait for Hamas and the PA to come together, we’ll never move forward with our democracy and economy," the former official added. "Bashar is a leading part of the growing wave of Palestinians who are working around the dysfunction of our government and building our society on their own."

Palestinians suffering from this democratic deficit should expect little help from the United States. After U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with President Abbas earlier this month, the United States has shown little concern for the Palestinian leaders’ disregard for democracy. "Whatever political capital the United States has at this point, it seems they’re not willing to dilute the ask by pushing Abbas to revitalize Palestinian institutions and lessen his grip on power," says Rob Danin, a former U.S. diplomat now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Danin worries that the current dismal state of Palestinian democratic institutions is one of the main obstacles to the success of the process. "We need to reinforce Palestinian beliefs that they have a legitimate leadership, which will in turn build support for the peace process," he says. "Whatever Abbas agrees to, he will have to take back to the Palestinian people. And right now, many Palestinians feel their leaders are moving the ball in the wrong direction."

Yet the obstacles remain formidable. Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who recently published a book about the Palestinian Authority, sums up the current feeling in the West Bank with the word "resignation." "The PA really needs to take practical spaces to open up space for new political parties, voices and positions," he says. "What people like Masri are doing is good for democratic development, but at the end of the day, one has to wonder how much one good example [like Rawabi] can do."

Masri fully appreciates the obstacles that he will have to overcome. He recalls the post-Oslo euphoria, when he expected thousands of Palestinians like him to return to help build a strong democratic Palestine. But it didn’t happen that way.

"When I came back in 1994 from the United States, there were only about 100 of us. I was shocked. Today, I would say there are only about 30 of us." But he continues undeterred. He doesn’t really see any other alternative.

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