RAMALLAH, West Bank – In this ancient land where communities have grown helter-skelter, the future now looks more like well-tended U.S. suburbia: powerful entrepreneurs are planning two built-from-scratch West Bank cities with thousands of homes as well as malls, high-tech call centers and hotels.
The two projects, with a total investment of up to $900 million, are part of ambitious plans to revive the Palestinian economy, as Israelis and Palestinians talk peace again after seven years of violence.
However, hurdles need to be cleared before ground can be broken for the as yet unnamed cities, both to be located about 15 minutes from Ramallah, the West Bank's commercial center and seat of government.
Israel has final say over parts of the projects. During 40 years of Israeli occupation, a new city has never been built in the West Bank. Also, there is no infrastructure yet, like access roads and electricity hookups, and affordable mortgages, an essential marketing requirement, are hard to obtain.
In an interview Wednesday, Abdel Malik Jaber, one of the most powerful business people in the Palestinian territories and CEO of Paltelgroup, a mammoth among Palestinian companies, unveiled details for the first time of the town he plans to build on 750 acres near Ramallah, starting in early 2008. It's one of two such projects in the planning stages.
Costing between $650-$700 million (euro440-euro475 million), the city would have 6,000 housing units, as well as a mall, a hospital, schools and a university. Building the city would provide about 10,000 jobs, he said.
"We have all the approvals to start construction," Jaber said, sitting in a large corner office on the fifth floor of a new company high-rise with tinted glass facades.
Paltel, the Palestinian telecommunications company, would eventually move some of its offices to the new city, he said.
In addition, he plans a state-of-the art call center, India-style. The center would employ about 350 people for Paltel's needs, but would hire 250 others, including university graduates, to provide similar services to other companies, including customers in Israel and the Arab world.
The new city would also be home to an elite MBA program, training 60-70 future executives a year, to stop the drain of Palestinian executives lured by much higher salaries in the Gulf.
But obstacles remain.
Perhaps most worrisome for investors is the unstable political climate. Reflecting a Palestinian consensus, many in the business community doubt life will improve dramatically in the wake of last week's Mideast conference in Annapolis, Maryland, where Israeli and Palestinian leaders decided to resume peace talks.
A network of Israeli barriers and roadblocks continues to hamper travel and trade, and Palestinian business people hope at best for a calmer atmosphere and new opportunities, including joint ventures with Israeli partners. Such projects are to be announced at a post-Annapolis business conference in the spring.
Jaber said he does not expect a breakthrough in peace talks but felt the private sector should take the lead in the meantime.
He said he is setting up the training in partnership with a Kuwaiti company, which already runs such a program, in conjunction with two top schools in Europe. The Palestinian students would get loans and grants, but would have to pledge to keep working in the Palestinian territories after graduation.
He said the "anchor buildings," such as the call center and a mall, would go up first. The speed of building and selling apartments would depend to some degree on the state of the Palestinian economy and the purchasing power of future homeowners.
The city does not have a name yet, and Jaber said he hoped to pick in a nationwide competition.
A similar project, on a slightly smaller scale, is being planned by Bashar Masri, another prominent businessman. His $200 million (euro135 million) city, to be built on 250 acres between Ramallah and Nablus, would have 4,000 housing units, a downtown commercial area, schools, a clinic and a hotel.
Masri said he's trying to build affordable housing, for $40,000 (euro27,000)-$75,000 (euro50,000) per unit. He said his main concern is the absence of mortgages for low-income buyers.
Traditionally, Palestinians build homes step by step, buying material as they can afford it, or they take out short-term commercial loans. Planning an entire community is unheard of.
Masri, who developed similar projects in Morocco and other Arab countries, said he could start early next year, provided the mortgage issue is solved. Masri said he does not need Israeli approval, because the town would be built in an area of the West Bank that is under full Palestinian administrative control.
However, he said he'll need to coordinate with Israel on infrastructure, such as access roads.
Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesman, said Israel supports such projects in principle, but that he was unaware of the specifics of the new towns. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said final Israeli approval for the housing projects has not been given.
Still, Regev said Israel is open to the idea. "The process of helping the Palestinians achieve greater economic development, that's an integral part of the peace process," he said. "Living next to a healthy and successful Palestine, that is the goal."
Mideast envoy Tony Blair is leading the efforts to help revive the Palestinian economy, and an aide said he has been talking to the Israeli and Palestinian governments about supporting large private investments in housing.
Masri and Jaber pin some hope on the meeting of donor countries in Paris on Dec. 17, where the Palestinian government will request $5.8 billion (euro4 billion) in aid over three years, nearly double the currently level.
About 30 percent is to go for development projects, and the two entrepreneurs expect some money to go to infrastructure for their new cities.
"If the donors would like to see economic development in Palestine, these projects are ideal for support," said Masri. "The private sector is eager to invest in Palestine."