With land at the heart of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle, every construction project can constitute a political act
The first thing that strikes you about Old Jerusalem is just how compact it is. You can circumnavigate the Old Town's walls in an hour. Walking through the looping passageways and past the heaped food-stalls inside, you stumble from Muslim to Christian to Jewish districts within a matter of minutes. The different religions live on top of one another, with their most sacred sites – the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Sepulchre – jostling for position. It is scarcely believable.
The second thing I noticed is that, unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, building sites do not have the logos of British firms on their hoardings. I suspect there are many UK companies here – I know of a few already – but they may not wish to let everyone know it, especially given Israel's current standing in the eyes of the world. In fact, even the Israeli contractors take great care not to advertise their presence on most sites. It is not hard to understand why. Building is among the most political things you can do in Jerusalem.
Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, building sites do not have the logos of British firms on their hoardings. It is not hard to understand why
It's all about the land. The struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Jerusalem is, at its heart, about the land the city lies on. Both lay claim to parts of it, and often construction is the means by which the conflict is played out. Take the following example.
Last month, the Israelis issued a tender to build 130 housing units in the East Jerusalem village of Har Homa. The only problem is that East Jerusalem has been the unofficial home to the Palestinians since 1967, and so they view any new construction project within the district as an attempt at a covert land grab. But East Jerusalem has officially been under the jurisdiction of the state of Israel since the same year, so the Israelis are perfectly entitled to build there. Is it a covert land grab? Well, that depends on your point of view.
The restaurants show the nightly Gaza bombings on Al Jazeera, but nobody pays attention – Jerusalem has problems of its own
Either way, just imagine being an Israeli and deciding to become an architect or contractor. The people we at Building speak to in the UK construction trade about building schools, hospitals, government buildings and medical laboratories sometimes worry about the political implications of their jobs. But consider what would happen if almost every drawing you created or structure you built represented a political act. And that is before you get into the creation of the divisions, compounds and traffic systems that keep Jerusalem bisected. No wonder the liberal architects of Britain obsess so about the Palestinian question. Sadly, with some honourable exceptions, their Israeli counterparts do not.
The third thing I have noticed, by the way, is how little people are talking about what is happening in Gaza. Even in East Jerusalem, where I am staying, the restaurants show the nightly bombings on Al Jazeera, but nobody pays attention to it. It seems Jerusalem has problems of its own.