Earlier this month, we travelled to Israel to report on some of the world’s most controversial construction schemes: those in the Jewish settlements bordering the occupied West Bank. Here, we look at working life from the point of view of an Israeli developer and a Palestinian contractor, and review recent projects

The Holocaust museum
The Holocaust museum

On 19 August 2003, Shelly Levine, one of Israel’s foremost developers, was driving through Jerusalem’s Shmuel Hanavi neighbourhood. Ahead of her was a No 2 bus, packed with worshippers returning from prayers at the Western Wall. Levine moved past as it turned left, but was no more than 20 m away when the bus blew up. The blast left 23 dead. Although she suffered no more than a cracked windscreen, she is unable to forget the carnage wrought by the Palestinian suicide bomber.

Such is the gruesome background to life in Israel; Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories have their own horror stories of everyday life during the four years of the second intifada. For people in the construction business, such as Levine, every building site has a political dimension. This is especially so when the development happens to cross the Green Line that separates Israel and the West Bank. Levine’s firm, Tivuch Shelly, carries out work in the border settlements. “Building in Israel is totally political,” she says. “But nobody does anything purely on ideological grounds.”

Nobody knows better how supremely political the act of building in Israel is than the prime minister Ariel Sharon. He has been a passionate supporter of the settlers’ movement, and from 1990 to 1992, as minister of housing, he led a settlement drive in the West Bank that resulted in thousands of Jewish settlers moving in.

It seems ironic, then, that it is Sharon who has recently forced through a policy of pulling Israeli settlers out of the Gaza Strip. The move has been bitterly opposed within his own party and by parts of his coalition government. Some see the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza, home to 7000 settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians, as a pragmatic necessity; some see it as a way of postponing the day when Arabs outnumber Jews in Israel and the Occupied Territories, currently due to dawn in 2020. Others argue that it is a quid pro quo for staying on in the West Bank. It’s no coincidence, they say, that Sharon has just issued a tender for the construction of 550 flats in Ma’aleh Adumim, a 30-year-old settlement north-east of Jerusalem and beyond the Green Line.

The scale of Ma’aleh Adumim may be small, but it is of international significance. According to president George Bush’s stalled “Roadmap for Peace”, new settlements in the West Bank should not go beyond “the existing construction line”. Israeli government spokesmen are therefore keen to deny that Israel is building more settlements in the West Bank.

Their denials rely on the fact that the no building rule can be bent to allow “natural expansion” – that is, growth in the number of original settlers. And, of course, no Israeli government can be seen to ignore the views of settlers. From Levine’s point of view, there is no controversy about expanding Ma’aleh Adumim. “After the Camp David peace talks [in 2000] I spoke to an Israeli politician involved in the negotiations and he said Ma’aleh Adumim was non-negotiable. Nobody considers it to be over the Green Line.”

The town, just 10 minutes’ drive from Jerusalem, has a population of 35,000. According to Levine, it could grow to 100,000 by 2020. She insists that this is because of the market, not just politics.

“It’s impossible to sell houses in the West Bank settlements,” she says. “But the places surrounding Jerusalem will be okay. This is a beautiful city with great quality of life.”

But from the Palestinian point of view, the expansion of Ma’aleh Adumim is less good news. Aziz Abu Tair is the head of AAT, a contractor he set up after returning in 1996 after spending 16 years in the UK. He is a civil engineer and does a lot of work in west Jerusalem, but has also worked in the West Bank.

Aziz says that many Arab contractors work in places beyond the Green Line like Ma’aleh Adumim, but he refrains out of principle. “The effect of these areas is to limit Arab growth in east Jerusalem,” he says. “The process takes Arab land and builds Jewish houses on it.”

East Jerusalem is surrounded by a collar of Israeli new towns – to the north-east by Ma’aleh Adumim and to the south by the growing town of Har Homa.

The main problem about working elsewhere in the West Bank is payment. “Sometimes it takes a couple of months after you apply,” he says. “It’s because most of the projects are paid for by overseas donations. In Israel you almost always get paid within a month.”

Since 2002, the height of the second intifada, West Bank Arabs have not been allowed to work in Israel. This has led to a glut of workers. Those employed by Aziz come exclusively from Jerusalem, a situation he finds farcical. “People used to come and go,” he says. “Now there are hard penalties on contractors who employ illegal workers. It can be a very large fine – even imprisonment.”

Aziz is most scathing of the £1.34bn “security fence” being built around the West Bank. This is highly popular among Israelis of all political colours, but Aziz says it is mad. When you consider his family’s experience of the wall, you see his point. His brother lives to the south of Jerusalem. The barrier goes through his town, neatly bisecting it. The first thing he knew about it was when the tractors turned up to start work. “We’d read about it in the papers,” says Aziz, “but we never knew where it was going to be. We’ve challenged it and managed to get a freeze until next month. I don’t know how they can put the fence around Ma’aleh Adumim,” he adds. “It’ll create this huge bulge out of Jerusalem.”

Yet the politics of the peace process is never far away. If Ma’aleh Adumim does grow, it will be because the Israeli government wants it to, since it owns 98% of the land in Israel and tightly controls the tendering process down to size and type of dwellings. And any government consent to build housing is inherently political because, as the border towns expand, they will no longer be considered to be beyond the Green Line. Put simply, it will be harder to argue that places like Ma’aleh Adumim should be left out of any new Israeli state if they become bigger and have more Israelis in them. Levine says: “The bottom line about Ma’aleh Adumim is that it’s an artificial border that represents the future border of the north-east of Jerusalem.”

The policy received a huge boost on 14 April with Bush’s endorsement of Israeli control over major Jewish residential areas in the territories. The economic outlook is likely to be a continued growth in workload for Tivuch Shelly.

  • Building would like to thank Media Line for their assistance with this article

The Holocaust museum

Yad Vashem is Israel's way of remembering. It stretches across 45 acres of the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, and is the prime focus in the country to commemorate the Holocaust. Israeli architect Moshe Safdie has been entrusted with the vital task of updating the main Yad Vashem museum, which was set up in 1953. The new complex is housed in a vast triangular prism that penetrates the mountain from one side to the other. Due to open next March, the structure will be three times the size of the current museum and visitors will enter through a bridge. Once inside, a series of diagonal channels cut into the floor of the prism lead through the 8 m high galleries depicting events from the Holocaust. At the end is the Hall of Names, intended to be a repository for the pages of testimony of the six million holocaust victims. Visitors can search a database for victims' names, or gaze up into a 9 m high, 11 m wide cone which is covered with 600 photographs of victims. Beyond the Hall of Names the concrete prism shell rises upwards, culminating in a stunning view of Jerusalem.

Ben Gurion airport

Israel has a new airport. On 28 October, amid much singing, dancing and interminable speech-making, the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon opened the £430m international terminal of Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. The structure, which will handle all flights to and from Israel, was designed by the American architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – and many other firms. The new terminal, which replaces a somewhat decrepit terminal of the same name is 2.4 million ft2 and is designed to accommodate 16 million passengers a year. The airport was split into two, each with its own design team. The landside, which holds the customs, ticketing, immigration and baggage claim areas, was tackled by SOM, and Karmi Associates of Tel Aviv. The airside terminal was designed by RTA from Seattle and Moshe Safdie and Associates. Bovis Lend Lease was the construction manager and Arup was the structural, mechanical and fire engineers and Gardiner & Theobald was the QS.