Cities without a Country

A new book and a new documentary film offer a profoundly insightful and thought-provoking snapshot of the many troubling uncertainties faced by Palestinians in 2021.

In May 2008, Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestine Authority (PA), welcomed international investors to the first-ever Palestine Investment Conference (PIC) in a Bethlehem hotel. This landmark event was designed to make the point that Palestine was “open for business” despite the then 40-year-long Israeli occupation. It was attended by the Quartet envoy, the former British Labour prime minister, Tony Blair. “Palestine,” as Fayyad famously wrote in his invitation, “is throwing a party and the whole world is invited.”

Palestinian-American anthropologist Kareem Rabie’s book – with the same catchy title – is a detailed, often dense but intellectually penetrating look at how that conference heralded a significant change in both economic and political strategy. It shifted the focus from the post-Oslo “state in the making” towards what he defines as “neo-liberal globalization” rather than Palestinian independence. If this work has a single message it is that there is a significant difference between neo-liberalism and national liberation. “This is state as market, nowhere near state as sovereign,” as he writes.

Efforts at what critics call derisively “economic peace” or supporters term “Fayyadism” were exemplified by the subsequent construction of the city of Rawabi (the Arabic name means “Hills”). Rawabi is nine kilometers north of Ramallah, the “capital” of the West Bank and the headquarters of the PA, under both the PLO’s Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas, who chaired the second PIC in 2010. Ramallah, billed as a “city in transition”, also features in a new film about Musa Hadid, its mayor, who faces many of the same issues, dilemmas and challenges posed by the now 54-year Israeli presence.

Hadid, a civil engineer by profession, was born in 1965, two years before Israel’s momentous victory in the Six-Day War. That means that he has lived almost his entire life under occupation, as have the vast majority of Palestinians elsewhere in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, despite the changes flowing from the Oslo Accords in 1993. David Osit’s award-winning documentary, Mayor, in which Hadid stars, and Rabie’s book – despite their radically different genres – are both profoundly insightful and thought-provoking additions to the ever-growing interest in the world’s most intractable and divisive conflict.

Rabie uses the development of Rawabi to demonstrate how global processes influence the maintenance of Israeli rule with the self-interested help of Palestinian capitalists, managers, and technocrats – although it is far from clear that that is their intention. The new town itself is known in Israel as the “Palestinian Modi’in” (the nearby Jewish city that straddles the pre-1967 “green line”) – which provides a clue to the nature of the controversy that inevitably surrounds it, with opponents stressing that the architecture represents the colonized mimicking the colonizer. The well-known Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, who designed Modi’in, was consulted on the project. Rabie studied Rawabi for nine years, defining it as “both the vanguard and the cornerstone of a suite of changes to governance, the economy and the land in Palestine carried out under the rubric of state building” and a “lens through which to see much wider processes.”

Rawabi is located on a previously empty, olive-terraced hill in Area A where Palestinians purportedly have both civil and military control. It is surrounded by Area B under Palestinian civil and Israeli military control and Israel’s Area C (over 60% of the West Bank) – described as “the archipelago of territorial control.” The key figure in its creation is the American-educated entrepreneur Bashar al-Masri, from a well-known Nablus family, whose net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion. His extensive and slick PR apparatus describes Rawabi as “the first planned modern Palestinian city” or, more informally, “a little Dubai in Palestine.” It continues to be constructed by Masri’s own Bayti (“My Home”) Real Estate Investment Company, jointly owned by the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company and Massar (“Path” in Arabic) International, another Masri company.

Not surprisingly, Rabie is extremely critical of him: ”Masri often presents himself as a ‘visionary,’ a brave non-conformist against Israeli barriers, against the PA for failing to live up to its obligations and sometimes against Palestinians for their incapacity to understand what he is doing. He has railed specifically against ‘left-wing living rooms’ [salons] for making his project difficult, as well as against the Israelis for failing to establish a truly open market.” Still, Masri does admit frankly that he wants to make money and at the same time to help his people by providing affordable housing and creating jobs. “Rawabi,” as Rabie puts it objectively, ”solves a problem for development: how to build and profit in the landscape of Israeli control and Palestinian fragmentation?”

In many ways Ramallah is the model for Rawabi: over the last 15 years, since the al-Aqsa or second intifada petered out, it has acquired sleek shopping malls, high-end apartment blocks replacing small single-family homes, luxury hotels and the headquarters of internationally-funded NGOs. “I look,” Rabie writes at the end of his lengthy introduction, “at a Palestine that is unevenly incorporated within a settler state and where all of its racial and territorial imperatives, accumulation, security and stability, rhetoric around security and stability, state building, and class and spatial segregation all intersect.”

Rabie does not explain why he views Israel as a settler state. In a way, he doesn’t need to, precisely because it has become so common – if inadequate – way of explaining the Zionist enterprise, and especially its simultaneous role as a movement of national liberation. Nor does the increasingly fashionable concept of “settler-colonialism” address the historic and religious connection of Jews to what they call Eretz-Yisrael, the role played by anti-Semitism in promoting Jewish self-determination, and the influx, especially, but not solely, after 1948, of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. This long-standing and acrimonious debate reflects a bleakly familiar truth about how the conflict is perceived: Zionists have long focused on their positive intentions in immigrating to Palestine; Arabs on the negative results, especially, according to Edward Said – another Palestinian-American thinker – of “having their territory settled by foreigners.”

Or to put it differently – and far more subtly – in the perceptive words of the Palestinian-Israeli scholar Raef Zreik: “Zionism is a settler-colonial project, but not only that. It combines the image of the refugee with the image of the soldier, the powerless with the powerful, the victim with the victimizer, the colonizer with the colonized, a settler project and a national project at the same time. The Europeans see the back of the Jewish refugee fleeing for his life. The Palestinian sees the face of the settler colonialist taking over his land.”

Ongoing plans for Rawabi include private schools, a country club, cinemas and other leisure industry businesses. It already has a 15,000 seat amphitheater used for concerts, and luxuries such as a track for racing all-terrain vehicles, bungee-jumping and an overhead zipline. All these have been reported in extensive English-language media coverage – far more than in Arabic – including long pieces in the FT Wealth Magazine and the Guardian.

Difficulties encountered include the concerns of three nearby Palestinian villages, water supplies and road access, (both because of Israeli control), and of course the knotty topic of the role of the increasingly weak and unpopular PA, especially with regard to anything other than its security cooperation with Israel. The city is being built on 6,300 dunams, (1,557 acres) a large part of which was confiscated under a decree signed by Abbas in 2009 after many Palestinian owners refused to sell their land. Construction began in January 2010, over a decade ago. By late 2019 there were 5,000 residents, far from the original goal of reaching a population of 25,000-40,000.

Residential blocks are now linked by carefully-landscaped walkways, communal gardens and squares, with vehicles restricted to outer roads and underground car parks. Power and telecoms are delivered by underground fiber-optic cables. Children’s playgrounds, outdoor gym equipment and benches are scattered through each neighborhood. Apartments are finished to a high standard, with modern kitchens, integrated appliances, tiled floors, balconies, recessed lighting and communal stores to keep garbage out of sight. Heating and air conditioning are delivered from a central source.

Palestinian and other activists, especially those who support the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), made clear from the start that they see Rawabi as an unacceptable example of normalization with Israel, peaking when the project accepted a controversial donation (on both sides) of 3,000 trees from the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for planting there. Rabie shows, on the basis of hard evidence and gossip gathered (albeit often anonymously) from present and former employees, that Masri is seen as little more than a corrupt capitalist. Dov Weissglass, an Israeli lawyer and former adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was hired as his legal and regulatory consultant for the project, despite his leading role in curtailing the Palestinians’ national aspirations in the early 2000s. Back in 2013 BDS accused Masri of “whitewashing ongoing occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people.”

In 2016 Masri proudly told a Chicago event organized by the liberal Zionist organization J-Street that he was pushing $70-$80 million into the Israeli economy and that “our historic enemy – Israel – could become our best friend.” Rabie’s conclusion is this: “By extracting profit from an unstable political situation and working actively with the PA, NGOs, the US government, the Quartet, they are producing a West Bank that serves market liberalization as political liberalism and potential liberation. There emerges an ethic of individualism and class aspiration that does not negate previous forms of collective nationalism but alters its form and objectives.” He also concedes, however, that Masri is also “presented as a hero in ways that make complete sense given the individualist economic ethic that emerged out of the real lack of capacity in the PA, the dissolution of the national movement, and the absence of cohesive politics within the West Bank (let alone between the Occupied Territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel, or Palestinians in the diaspora).”

Historical and political context, as ever, matters. The first PIC was held in Bethlehem when Ehud Olmert was Israel’s centrist prime minister (representing Kadima, not the Likud) after having given an unusually empathetic speech about the Palestinians at the 2007 Annapolis peace conference. In August and September 2008, he held secret talks with Abbas before resigning to face criminal corruption charges. Olmert claimed earlier this year that the PA president had been very keen on reaching a deal, despite Abbas’s account that he had rejected the offer – which included placing Jerusalem’s Old City under international control and compensating the Palestinians with nearly all the land retained for Israel settlements in the West Bank — because he was not allowed to study the map of the proposed peace agreement. Olmert resigned in 2009 and was replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his 12 consecutive years in office.

Rabie focuses on structural change, economic interests and shifting attitudes yet he largely ignores day-to-day high politics and diplomacy – not even mentioning those Olmert-Abbas talks, for example. But that is an advantage in understanding the “big picture” meaning of Rawabi. “In Palestine, where the whole political arrangement since at least 1967 has been to hurry up and wait, a project that is simply moving along can be politically relevant,” he writes. “Just like the peace process and its endless networks of institutions, funding structures, and employment opportunities, real estate development works on the long term by extending the present.”

Curiously, the book does not examine the progressive social implications of the Rawabi project, particularly with regard to the status of single Palestinian women, who would normally be expected to carry on living with their parents until they acquired a husband. The gender equality issue is an important element of foreign media coverage. It was eagerly publicized that by 2016 nearly half the Rawabi workforce were female.

Image matters too – especially the central role of privatization. “The trees, the songs, the olives are Palestinian, cultural…part of our heritage,” as one nearby villager frets. But perhaps the author exaggerates the overall significance of Rawabi and the conflation of nationalist and capitalist goals, as he notes that the eminent sociologist Salim Tamari cautioned him. And all this to house 25,000 middle-class Palestinians who could easily have found homes in villages around Ramallah had the PA pressured Israel to loosen their control over land-use planning, in the words of the (Ramallah-based) writer Raja Shehadeh and keen countryside hiker. As Rabie rightly concludes: “Rawabi is not something that has to be explained to most West Bank Palestinians, yet it is still after all of these years unclear what it will be or what it will mean. It is not directly important for the broad range of Palestinians, but it is massively relevant for the future it is helping to produce for their homeland.”

David Osit’s 90-minute documentary is a far more accessible guide to recent events than Rabie’s book. It is also touchingly human, less academic and intellectual in focusing on Hadid and his second-term dealing with day-to-day issues and problems as mayor of Ramallah – the epicenter of Palestinian commerce and culture. A civil engineering graduate of Bir Zeit University (just south of Rawabi – underlining the tiny physical dimensions of the West Bank) he was imprisoned by Israel during the first intifada, which erupted in late 1987. He is also Christian (along with nearly a quarter of Ramallah’s 40,000 residents), which explains the importance he attaches to celebrating both Christmas and Easter in unusually trying circumstances.

In public at least, he emphasizes municipal affairs: “We have to deal with managing the city and leave the politics to others,” he says at one of the many council meetings over which he presides. Hadid is charismatic but simultaneously modest, with a witty sense of humor. ”I literally can’t deal with this shit,” he jokes when trying to deal with an Israeli settlement sewage leak into a nearby Palestinian village. One critic described the film as a “dark comedy.” He spends a good deal of time frowning, or smoking e-cigarettes, while working or relaxing with his family, (who complain about the smell). This modest celebrity is greeted by excited children and adults whenever he is spotted in the streets of Ramallah.

Politics, of course, are never far away, especially during Donald Trump’s disruptive four years in the White House, and particularly the Republican president’s early Christmas present to Evangelical supporters in 2017 of his decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the city as Israel’s capital. Hadid is also unusually thoughtful and reflective – but that doesn’t stop him getting things wrong. He doesn’t tend to follow the news and asks an aide to keep him updated or buy him a radio or TV. Before Trump’s decision hit the headlines he says to colleagues: “It seems this clown is going to announce his decision tonight. He isn’t going to do it. They won’t put us in such turmoil”. Wishful thinking!

In the modern way, branding is an issue and dominates the opening scene in a discussion in which the slogan, “Ramallah: Gateway to Palestine,” is rejected because it is deemed “politically problematic” – for obvious reasons. Close to the municipal building, the posh Café de la Paix figures prominently in an Israeli army operation to seize surveillance cameras during which the mayor has to take cover in his office. He declines the suggestion of a colleague that he go live on Facebook, but says afterwards to reporters: “Whatever they (the Israelis) do, this land is ours and this city is ours.”

In another scene, Hadid visits capitals like Washington and London, and envies the ability of their mayors to serve their population. His own job means running a city without a country. “I feel jealous when I visit other cities,” he admits. “There’s so much they can do that we cannot.” In a debate in Oxford, he puts his work routines into a succinct perspective: “We cannot visit the sea, which we can see from our hilltops. We cannot visit Jerusalem which is 10 miles away. We cannot build a sewage treatment center without the permission of Israel. We are surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, and these settlers use what little resources we have with impunity.”

On another trip to South Africa, he attends a tree-planting ceremony and speaks of how the Israeli army uproots olive trees. When members of a German delegation try to arrange a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian students, he elaborates on the humiliating treatment he suffers at IDF checkpoints and questions the value of dialogue for its own sake. “When we feel when we are not treated as slaves, and they are the masters, we are ready to do everything,” he tells them.

And there are depressingly familiar reminders of what ordinary life is still like in Ramallah – despite all the changes that have taken place over the last three decades. Trump’s Jerusalem decision sparked demonstrations in the city, with Israeli forces shooting at protestors as Hadid (sensibly) watches from the relative safety of his car. “It is happening whether we freak out or not,” he says calmly the next day when discussing the implications with colleagues. Prince William’s 2018 visit was a happier occasion – despite the enduring legacy of the Balfour Declaration a century earlier.

Given Hadid’s determined emphasis on running municipal rather than national affairs, it would have been interesting to see or hear more about his relations with the PA. An Easter appearance with Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh provides no clues, nor does his sitting next to the veteran Palestinian spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi. Rabie’s book and Osit’s film both provide a vivid and illuminating snapshot of big questions – and of course the many troubling uncertainties – faced by Palestinians in the third decade of the 21st century. It would also have been fascinating to know what that impressively responsible mayor and civil engineer thinks of the new town just a few kilometers north of Ramallah, which also begins with the letter R.

*Kareem Rabie, Palestine is Throwing a Party and the Whole World is Invited, Duke University Press, 2021, pp. 272.

*Mayor (dir. David Osit), Rosewater Pictures LLC, 2020, 90 minutes.

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