Rawabi developer Masri helps deepen Israel’s grip on West Bank

Bashar Masri with Leocadia Zak, Acting Director of the United States Trade Development Agency, after singing an agreement at Rawabi, March 2010. (Haytham Othman/MaanImages)

Bashar Masri, the Palestinian businessman and CEO of the company that is developing the Rawabi luxury real estate project in the occupied West Bank, appears to be actively helping Israel deepen its hold on the Palestinian economy despite his earlier claims that he is trying to help end this relationship.

On 30 December, The Electronic Intifada reported that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) in Palestine had expressed serious concerns following reports that a dozen Israeli companies have been contracted to take part in the construction of Rawabi, billed as the “first planned Palestinian city” (“Role of Israeli firms raises boycott concerns about Rawabi”).

In comments sent to The Electronic Intifada prior to the 30 December article, Masri claimed that using Israeli firms was a matter of necessity due to severe Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian economy in the occupied West Bank.

Masri is CEO of the Ramallah-based Bayti Real Estate Investment Company which is building Rawabi. He is also founder of the firm Massar International which along with Qatari Diar is financing the project.

Masri stated “It is also a well-known fact that our economy is very much dependent on Israel. Of course we do not like it but we have no choice.”

But in fact Masri appears to have made the choice to work closely with the Israeli government and businesses in order to bring even more Israeli companies into the occupied West Bank. This not only makes it harder for Palestinian firms to establish themselves against Israeli businesses which have a built-in advantage since Israel is the occupying power, but is in flagrant violation of the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

On 28 January 2010, for example, Masri gave a talk in Tel Aviv co-hosted by the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce and a body called the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, titled “Prospects for Investing in the Palestinian Authority.” Advertised in Hebrew on the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce website, attendees were required to pay an entrance fee of up to 200 shekels ($56 US).

The Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce (IPCC) appears to be a body established and controlled by Israel to facilitate even deeper Israeli control and exploitation of the Palestinian economy. One of its projects, for example, is to produce a “Palestinian Business Guide” to help Israeli firms benefit from the advantages that military occupation as well as collaboration between the occupation army and Palestinian Authority security forces confer on them. As stated on the IPCC website:

“Trade between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is vast and in 2008 reached 15 billion [shekels] [$4.25 billion US]. In 2009 it continued to flourish as a result of the improvement in the security situation, measures taken by the Israeli government and increased trust between the two business communities. In spite of all this, there is no full and up-to-date information about the Palestinian market available for Israeli and foreign companies who wish to find business partners in the West Bank. Therefore, the IPCC has decided to compile a comprehensive study of the Palestinian economy, which will offer up-to-date information about businesses, their background and products, thus enabling Israeli and foreign companies [to] find partners in a quicker and easier manner.”

IPCC also says it works closely with the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs. It was launched at a May 2009 “gala” in Tel Aviv, attended by Quartet envoy Tony Blair, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon of the notoriously racist Yisrael Beiteinu party. More than 200 Israeli businesspersons attended the gala and among the thirty or so Palestinians who attended, according to the IPCC website, were Bashar Masri, Nafez Hirbawi, Ziad al-Bandak and Mahmoud Abu Ein, all businessmen with close ties to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. Al-Bandak is a longtime advisor to Abbas and former PA minister.

Underlining that IPCC is part and parcel of the Israeli occupation, the organization’s CEO is none other than Israeli Lt. Col (ret) Avi Nudelman who, according to his resume on the IPCC website, spent most of his military career either in intelligence or as a military ruler in the occupied West Bank. In 1998 Nudelman “served as the head of the security coordination office (DCO) in the Ramallah district, and later the head of the liaison for the Palestinian security apparatus in the West Bank.” From 2003-06, Nudelman “served in the Strategic Division in the IDF [Israeli army] as the head of the Palestinian branch,” according to the IPCC website.

Preceding Nudelman as head of the IPCC was Ofir Gendleman, long an Israeli diplomat, who was appointed last May by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s “Arabic-language spokesman for public diplomacy.” No other staff or board members are listed on the IPCC website.

As The Electronic Intifada also reported on 30 December, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) specifically criticized Masri’s Rawabi project for decisions that “undermine the boycott campaign and principles of national consensus among Palestinians, as well as promot[ing] a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to Israel.”

Masri’s cooperation with the Israeli government to deepen Israeli involvement in the West Bank stands in contrast with recent confirmation in a 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv, made public by Wikileaks, that Israel operated a policy of deliberately keeping the economy of the besieged Gaza Strip “on the brink of collapse” (“Cashless in Gaza?”). One of the architects of the policy was senior Israeli government advisor Dov Weisglass who notoriously explained in 2006 that “the idea is to put the Palestinians [in Gaza] on a diet but not to make them die of hunger” (“Gaza on the brink of explosion as aid cut-off starts to bite,” The Observer, 16 April 2006).

Masri previously confirmed to The Electronic Intifada reports that he had hired Weisglass, now a private attorney, to assist Masri in a failed bid to purchase a financially-troubled Israeli settlement housing project in Jabal Mukaber, occupied East Jerusalem. Masri, however, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

The 2005 Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions urges a complete economic, academic and cultural boycott of Israel — modeled on the one that helped end apartheid in South Africa — until Israel respects and recognizes Palestinian rights and complies with international law.

Masri as well as other Palestinian businessmen who promote normalization with Israel seem to be doing all they can to undermine this campaign, while making handsome profits along the way.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor to The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict (Nation Books).

Editor’s Note: This article was corrected to reflect that Bashar Masri’s talk at the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce was scheduled for 28 January 2010, and not 28 January 2011.