Palestinian bulldozers pave the way for new settlements

Construction begins on the first ever planned Palestinian suburb in the West Bank which will provide much-needed housing for some 40,000 people.

Bulldozers carving out new suburbs in the occupied West Bank are a common occurrence; used as a means by Israel to increase its grip on the area and encroach deeper into Palestinian land. For once, however, it isn't a Jewish settlement being built but the first ever planned Palestinian suburb. The developers of Rawabi, as the community is known, hope it will one day provide much-needed housing for some 40,000 people and help cement Palestinian claims to the territory amid similar communities built by settlers.

"The city is not a settlement," says Bashar al-Masri, head of the Bayti Real Estate Investment Company, which is carrying out the US$700 million (2.57 billion) project along with Qatar's Diar Real Estate Company. "Instead it can be considered a Palestinian attempt to keep Palestinians on their land in order to contain Israeli settlement," he says. The building of a modern suburb in the West Bank, which is governed by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and receives considerable international aid, is in sharp contrast to the lingering devastation in the Gaza Strip, which has been under strict closure since the Hamas movement seized power in 2007.

The first phase of the Rawabi project calls for the construction of some 22 residential buildings housing 20,000 people within three years. The second phase will double the occupancy over the following three years. The city will include schools and hospitals, and the homes will be within the means of middle-class Palestinians, with units selling for $50,000 to 80,000. Covering some 630 hectares (1,500 acres), it will be one of the largest investment projects in the occupied territories, and has won the enthusiastic support of the Palestinian Authority.

"This project proves that there are opportunities for investment in Palestine," Said Palestinian economy minister Hassan Abu Libdeh. Ironically, the hilltop suburb resembles the dozens of Israeli settlements scattered across the territory, which the Palestinians have condemned as "facts on the ground" aimed at thwarting the creation of an independent state. "The sight of Palestinian bulldozers is strange, because we are used to seeing Israeli bulldozers stealing our land and digging it up to build settlements," says Mohammed Khamis, 42, as he watches from a nearby village.

"There are some cynical comparisons that Palestinians are involved in this sad scene associated with Israeli settlement, but we hope that the project will be the beginning of an expansion of related investment," said Abu Libdeh. The project is being carried out in Area A, a part of the occupied West Bank governed by the Palestinian Authority, but comes amid a general push to assert greater Palestinian control over the territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad has vowed to construct housing and infrastructure in Area C, which is under complete Israeli military control, as part of his plan to build the institutions of a Palestinian state by 2011. Israel in November enacted a 10-month moratorium on new building starts in the West Bank but excluded east Jerusalem, public buildings and projects already under way, prompting the Palestinians to slam the move as insufficient.

Nearly half a million Israelis live in more than 100 settlements scattered across the West Bank and east Jerusalem, many of which resemble Western-style suburbs and house thousands of people. * AFP