Inside Rawabi: A new West Bank city built by a Palestinian for Palestinians

For the first time in over a thousand years, a new, planned Palestinian city is rising. Bill Whitaker reports from the West Bank on Rawabi.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced the U.S. no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank in violation of international law. The surprise decision reversed four decades of American policy. It drew criticism from allies around the world and alarm from Palestinians about the prospects for peace. To get a firsthand look at the politics of peace, we went to the West Bank, an area about the size of Delaware along the Jordan River, where Palestinians have long hoped to establish a state. In the city of Ramallah, we found a businessman who isn't waiting for the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis to hammer out a path forward. He's trying to build one himself. Bashar Masri is the dreamer behind a brand new city on a hill called Rawabi. Everyone told him it was impossible but today it's the biggest construction project in modern Palestinian history and the first planned city for Palestinians in more than 1,000 years.

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Bashar Masri with correspondent Bill Whitaker

When you think of the West Bank, chances are a Las Vegas-style concert is not what comes to mind. But this is what we found one night in Rawabi.

20,000 Palestinians jammed the largest amphitheater in the Middle East singing and swaying to the songs of Mohammad Assaf, one of the most popular performers in the Arab world.

This truly was music to the ears of Bashar Masri, the builder of Rawabi - one of the richest, and on this night, one of the happiest men in the Palestinian territories.  

Bill Whitaker: We saw you in this sea of people with a big grin on your face. What was goin' through your mind?

Bashar Masri: Success. Rawabi is a success.  A stamp of approval by my people. And it's a wonderful feeling.

"To me, this land is Palestine and inhabiting this area is emphasizing that we're here and we're here to stay for the long term."

A decade ago, Masri could only dream of a night like this. With audacity and determination, he made his dream real. Today, Rawabi, Arabic for "hills," sits gleaming atop a craggy ridge in the middle of the West Bank. The streets are lined with neat rows of condos. Since the grand opening in 2015, about 5,000 people have moved in. There's a school; and a city center that would look at home in the U.S. Sunbelt, with upscale stores selling high end brands; outdoor cafes; an indoor amusement center and extreme sports for the adventurous.  

Bill Whitaker: It looks like you're selling a little bit of the American dream on the West Bank.

Bashar Masri: Why not? If the American dream is a better life, definitely we deserve a better life. Our people deserve a better life. And that's what Rawabi should lead to. 

Masri has lived the American dream. He went to college in the U.S., got into business and became an American citizen.

He currently lives the good life in Ramallah, the commercial center of the Palestinian territories.  He turned modest real estate investments into an international business empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

He invested about a $150 million in Rawabi; he got the Gulf state of Qatar, a long-time backer of Palestinian causes, to buy in for almost a billion dollars. When Masri broke ground in 2010, he planted this giant Palestinian flag, like he was staking a claim. 

Bill Whitaker: What's the significance of this land to you and your city?
 
Bashar Masri: To me, this land is Palestine and inhabiting this area is emphasizing that we're here and we're here to stay for the long term.
 
Bill Whitaker: Why did you want to build a city?
 
Bashar Masri: I'm a strong believer. We have a nation in the making. And I saw Rawabi as a big step in building that nation. 

Palestinians have been yearning for their own country since the state of Israel was founded in 1948. The conflicting claims on this land have triggered a seemingly endless cycle of violence and recrimination.

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Rawabi

Today, most Israelis and Palestinians are separated by Israeli-built barriers and checkpoints.  Israelis say they're for security, Palestinians say they're to box them in. And with the proliferation of more than 250 Israeli outposts and settlements throughout the West Bank, like this one on the hilltop right across from Rawabi, Israel's grip on the land Bashar Masri calls Palestine seems tighter today than ever. Masri sees Rawabi as a way to loosen that grip.  

Bashar Masri: If we can build a city a futuristic city, a secular city, a democratic city then we can build a state.

Bill Whitaker: This seems like a very risky place to place such a big bet.

Bashar Masri: If we, the Palestinians, do not risk and invest in our own nation building, we should not expect anyone to do so. This is a duty. This is not a-- like, "Hey, thank you, Bashar, for investing in Palestine." I should.

Bill Whitaker: Right now, you-- you're losing money.

Bashar Masri: Our losses now are about $35 million a year, but going down every year. We estimate in three years we will be a total break even operation. 

When construction is completed, Masri's master plan envisions a city of 40,000 residents.

He's building it with stone cut from the hillside and construction workers hired from the West Bank. About 5,000 people work in Rawabi, a boon to the local economy where 15% of the population is unemployed. 

Stylish condos start at $65,000, competitively priced for cities in the West Bank, especially with American style mortgages that Masri introduced here. He sees Rawabi as a down payment on a Palestinian future that's upwardly mobile, cosmopolitan and green. A magnet for young, educated strivers, like 28 year old mechanical engineer Hadeel Jaradat.

Jaradat lives in Rawabi. She manages city facilities and a crew of 120, mostly men.

Hadeel Jaradat: When I came to the company, it was all men. I was the only female. 

Bill Whitaker: And now you're the boss.

Hadeel Jaradat: I'm the boss. So that's fine. I'm fine with it. 

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And she's helping pave the way for other women. A third of the engineers in Rawabi are women.  

Hadeel Jaradat: Not every day you build a city out of nothing. And being in this experience adds more to our hope. Because Rawabi is a home, it's giving us a home we've never dreamed to have in Palestine. 

Rawabi almost never got off the ground. Israel says it supports Palestinian economic development so it publicly endorsed Rawabi. But bureaucratic obstacles and right wing political opposition blocked Masri every step of the way. He had to fight for a permit to pave this narrow dirt road used for his construction trucks and equipment.

Bashar Masri: It took them four and a half years to allow us to pave it as a two lane road, windy road, that is good for a mansion. Maybe a small village. But certainly not for the city we are building.

Then there was the water. Israel held up Rawabi's pipeline for more than a year. Former officials in government ministries tell 60 Minutes Israeli cabinet members blocked the approval under pressure from a faction of ideological settlers who believe all this land is Israel. The most vocal: the settlers on that nearby hilltop.  

Bashar Masri: I cannot get the road because of their lobby against the road. I couldn't get the water because of their lobby of not getting the water. Why shall I live as a second-class citizen in my own country because of some minority radicals that believe God promised them this land?

In this arid land, Israel's refusal to turn on the tap was like a kiss of death: buyers backed out; Masri had to lay off workers.

Bill Whitaker: That must have-- brought you to a very low place.

Bashar Masri: It brought the project and me, personally, down to our knees, definitely. Everybody told me, "Give up. Give up. I said, "No way, this is a great battle. I must fight this battle. I must win this battle."

He appealed to supportive politicians in the U.S., Europe and the U.N.. They pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2015, Israel relented and let the water flow.  

Bashar Masri: It was the first time in my business that I have to deal directly with the Israelis- it's a very hard thing to do. Emotionally, it's very hard.

Bill Whitaker: Why emotionally?

Bashar Masri: Because to sit down with your occupier that makes your life miserable, controls your movement, controls your freedom And to ask kindly "Would you please give me my rights? is a demeaning issue. 

But he says it was devastating when he was criticized by Palestinians for dealing with the Israeli government and doing business with Israeli suppliers. Some of his own people called him a traitor. 

Bill Whitaker: Your critics say that you are normalizing the occupation. 

Bashar Masri: I'm creating jobs for my fellow Palestinians I am populating the land that if I'm not doin' it, the settlers are. We're not sugar-coating the occupation. We're not normalizing with the occupation. We are defying the occupation. 

He's been defying the occupation his whole life. Like some teenage boys today, Masri once threw stones at Israeli soldiers, the face of the occupation. He told us he spent many days in Israeli jails. 

In the late 1980s, Masri helped lead the first Intifada. He was with Yasser Arafat in 1993, when the PLO leader came to Washington for the groundbreaking signing of the Oslo Accords, which laid the framework for a two state solution to the conflict. Now, at 58, he's doing something the stone throwing Bashar Masri wouldn't have imagined.

He's embracing someone he would have considered the enemy. Masri wants to make Rawabi a high-tech hub and he found an improbable friend and partner in Eyal Waldman, a former Israeli combat officer. Waldman once patrolled the streets of Nablus, Masri's hometown. He now runs Mellanox, one of the world's leading computer chip makers. He grew up fighting Palestinians and remains wary today.  

Eyal Waldman: I want to strive for peace, I want to engage with the Palestinians but if I think you are threatening any of what's important to me I will kill you. And you have to think that way. You're just becoming a realist. Right? We're not playing games here. 

But Waldman wants to break the cycle of violence so he decided to join forces with Masri. He opened an office in Rawabi, where he employs 90 Palestinian workers. With a shortage of tech workers in Israel and an educated, lower cost workforce on the West Bank, Waldman says it's good policy and good business. 

Bill Whitaker: Were your Israeli employees and your Palestinian employees skeptical about working together?

Eyal Waldman: I think both sides were skeptical both sides have extreme people. They don't like what we're doing. But I think it's time to do peace. It's enough killing each other for 70 years. 

Bashar Masri: This is a sign of hope and despite the fact that we have different opinions, we have different religions, we have different cultures, we can make ends meet. That's a good example of the way forward. 

Masri sees a state taking root from the seeds he's planting on this hilltop - Rawabi on the precarious edge between Israeli occupation and Palestinian distrust. History has shown, dreams are hard to grow in this bloody soil, but Bashar Masri refuses to be shackled to the past. 

Bashar Masri: The way I see it, Israel is here to stay. And we are here to stay. We can continue the atrocities for the next 1,000 years or we can take a shortcut and start working together and end this misery.

Produced by Marc Lieberman. Associate producer, Ali Rawaf. Broadcast associates, Mabel Kabani and Emilio Almonte.