10/06/2010 01:55

“Pollution respects no borders, affects surrounding settlements – Jewish and Arab – even has an effect across Green Line,” Erdan says of Rawabi.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) threatened on Tuesday to do his utmost to prevent construction of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi if the developer did not offer solutions for potentially troubling environmental problems.

Erdan visited the planned site for Rawabi near Ramallah and Ofra with a media delegation to hear from a representative of the developer, even as the matter of the construction freeze in Israeli settlements continued to be a diplomatic hot potato.

“The government of Israel views aiding the Palestinian economy as a matter of great importance, and therefore we are cooperating in the construction of Rawabi. However, at the same time, constructing a new city comes fraught with potential problems – air pollution, ground contamination, insufficient water treatment and waste disposal,” Erdan told reporters from an adjacent hilltop overlooking the hill that is being terraced to accommodate the first 1,350 apartments.

Construction equipment was visible on the slope, but no activity was taking place at the time of the minister’s visit.

“Pollution respects no borders and can affect the surrounding settlements – Jewish and Arab – and even have an effect across the Green Line,” he said.

The developers did show the ministry their environmental assessment, but “it was not at the level which we are accustomed to seeing,” Erdan said. Therefore, ministry officials submitted a number of comments for clarification.

Erdan said that if end solutions to issues like sewage, water and waste disposal were not presented, he would request that the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria prevent use of the access roads to the site.

Rawabi will be built completely within Area A of the West Bank, where the Environmental Protection Ministry does not have any jurisdiction whatsoever and where building permission is given by the PA and not Israel. However, the access roads to the site to bring in vehicles and supplies run through Area C, which is under Israeli military control. Erdan stated he would ask that those access routes be cut off – thus de facto freezing construction – if solutions were not presented.

The developers have been asking for an access route to be rezoned as Area A for some time.

Erdan responded to questions about that request by saying, “I am absolutely not in favor of turning the access route over to the PA. First of all, I think it would set a bad precedent, which the government would likely be asked to repeat, like the construction moratorium. Second, this is our only way to put pressure on the developers. I have no intention of creating an environmental double standard where one thing is expected of Jewish settlements, while Palestinian cities can do whatever they want.”

He added that “we can’t allow contamination of the [mountain] aquifer [which runs beneath the West Bank], either.”

Rawabi is intended to become a modern metropolis similar in scope to Modi’in. When completed, it will be home to 40,000 people. Rawabi is being planned and built by Bayti Real Estate Investment Company – a joint venture owned by Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company and Palestinian Massar International. Ground was broken in January, although Erdan only entered the picture a couple of months ago when he requested the developers’ environmental assessment.

The developers were not obliged to submit the document to the ministry, but were convinced to do so after the civil administration applied pressure.

In an unusual move for Erdan, who generally chooses to keep his politics and his policies separate, the hawkish minister chose to respond to questions regarding the possible continuation of the construction freeze while gazing at Rawabi. Media reports have indicated that some form of continuation of the freeze may be in the offing.

“Usually, when there is a disputed territory, as we are in the disputed territories, [there is an even-handed policy for both sides]. However, now we have a situation where one side can’t build a single room or balcony, but the other side can build 4,000 apartments in a city that perhaps doesn’t have to be built in the first place,” he said.

From an environmental perspective, he continued, it would have been much better to expand Ramallah with its existing infrastructure than build an entirely new city, “but it’s a reality now.”

Amr Dajani, who represents the developers, briefed the minister, especially regarding the environmental aspects to be incorporated into the Palestinians’ first master-planned city.

“The planners have included green parks, public transportation, and cutting-edge telecommunications and information technology,” he explained to Erdan, gesturing once in a while to a planning map.

“We sought approval of the master plan from the PA, and we are delighted to have begun construction. During the construction, we will create 8,000- 10,000 new jobs, and afterward the city will provide 3,000- 5,000 new service positions,” Dajani said.

The developers hope to incorporate an information and communication technologies business hub within the city, he added.

On its website, the developers write, “The vision is for Rawabi to serve as a prototype of the first Palestinian green city and ultimately, to guarantee a higher quality of life for present and future generations.”

Dajani said the city would eventually be incorporated into a regional solid waste and wastewater management system, which would include nearby Ramallah, but that they were looking at short-term solutions to enable completion of phase one in two and a half years. He said Israeli companies that offer wastewater treatment solutions had been approached, such as Aqwise.

Regarding transporting fresh water to the city, Dajani said solutions were being reviewed, but it was likely that Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, would convey the water. The developer was also planning to collect storm water from rooftops to water gardens, he said.

Erecting basic infrastructure was also challenging because of the 45-degree slope of the city, Dajani pointed out.

The dirt and stone removed to build the city would be reused in construction for streets and roads, according to Dajani.

Ministry Director-General Yossi Inbar asked about a solution for all the dust that rises during construction. Dajani responded that they were looking into it and offered a general, partial answer about “wetting down the area with water.”

Dajani enthused that the city would be pedestrian- and public transportation-friendly.

“We will build underground garages to encourage people to leave their cars behind and walk,” he said.

From an aesthetic standpoint, water containers on roofs would be eschewed in favor of a central water reservoir. Similarly, personal satellite dishes would be prohibited. Instead, residents would get video on demand (VOD) via fiber optic cables, he said.

He added that solar applications were also being researched.