The (Ramallah) hills are alive with the sound of hammers

I never thought the first billionaire I would meet would be a Palestinian from Nablus.

Last month, I had the good fortune to spend a week studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and learning from its brilliant faculty. It was truly a pleasure to spend time in Jerusalem, soak up the energy of the city, go for morning runs through the Old City and speak Hebrew. Like all my visits and long stays in Israel, it was nourishment for my neshamah (soul).

During the Hartman program, we went on a day trip to a nearby city in the West Bank. After a leisurely hour or so drive from Jerusalem, we arrived at what looked more like a construction zone. There were trailers, cement trucks and hundreds of construction workers. As we exited the bus, we were welcomed into one of the trailers and officially greeted by Amir Dajani, foreman of the project to build the first-ever planned Palestinian city, to be called Rawabi.

Rawabi is a $1 billion project that broke ground two years ago. It is spearheaded by Palestinian-American Bashar Masri, a forward thinker who is uprooting all existing concepts of how to address the difficulties in the region. He spent an hour with our group describing the project, delving into details of finance and telling us stories of working with both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to get a road connecting Rawabi with the rest of the region.

Bashar is a unique individual, not to mention a brilliant businessman, with interests in real estate, communications and finance, committed to doing what he believes will support young Palestinian families in the region to build a vibrant and sustainable life. He has been criticized for his plans, he said — and added that when you are criticized from both sides, you must be doing something right.

“Rawabi,” which means “hills” in Arabic, is some 15 miles north of Jerusalem and just short of six miles north of Ramallah. It is on private land situated on top of hills with breathtaking panoramic views. According to the website, Rawabi “will encompass more than 5,000 housing units and a central commercial area with banks, retail shops, restaurants, cafés, medical facilities, offices, a hotel, a movie theater and 3 cinemas. The city will also offer 8 schools, green spaces, playgrounds, civic services, church and mosques.”

The community is meant to attract young “upwardly mobile” middle-class families to live, work and grow there. Developing the city will employ between 8,000 and 10,000 Palestinian workers, and will accommodate up to 40,000 residents when fully built. Some of the consultants and planners in the initial stages of the project were architects and planners of the Jewish town of Modi’in.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman (right) with Bashar Masri at the site of the future planned Palestinian community of Rawabi.

All these numbers are exciting and impressive — the employment of so many Palestinians, the collaboration between the planners of Rawabi and Israeli construction experts and city planners — but what separates Rawabi from so many other initiatives I’ve seen in the region is that it cannot be pigeonholed into any political camp.

When I read about some new project or initiative in the Middle East, too often I am guilty, like so many of us, of trying to assess it and place it in this or that box. I ask, are the people involved pro-Israel, anti-Israel, supportive of Israel, politically left or right? I try to judge them quickly.

What was so refreshing about the leaders of Rawabi is that they belong in no one box. They work with the Israeli government, they get trees from the Jewish National Fund because of their environmental sustainability efforts, they hire Israeli construction companies and architects and builders. They work with the Palestinian Authority, with average Palestinians who are looking for work and with Palestinian college graduates.

Their aim is clear, as project manager Dajani told us when we pressed him with political questions. He replied that he is not a politician and doesn’t claim to have the answers to the major political issues at hand; he’ll leave that up to the politicians, he said. “I’m here just trying to build a community for Palestinian families with affordable housing, employment, education and the amenities of so many cities around the world.”

The first residents are slated to move in at the end of 2013. I don’t know what the result of building Rawabi will be, but I look forward to visiting next year and drinking a cup of coffee with my new billionaire friend Bashar in the town center.

I encourage you to see the details of the project and live video feeds at

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive director of Berkeley Hillel.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive director of UC Berkeley Hillel.