In Kiryat Yam, Urban Renewal Program Faces Off With Rafael Armaments

Weapons manufacturer says residential building projects could endanger the tenants.

Neighborhood C in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Yam does not invoke the local patriotism found in many neighborhoods. It's too poor, too shabby.

"I wouldn't recommend it to a dog," says one resident, a woman named Bertha who has lived there since 1959. "It's a dump and nobody wants to live here."

Mayor Shmuel Sisso is working to change this. He has developed a new development plan aimed at attracting more affluent residents, but it is meeting opposition from a powerful local player: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, whose main weapons development plant borders Kiryat Yam.

Sisso's plan includes building towers to replace the two-story projects and one-story houses around Rafael. The weapons manufacturer says this would violate safety procedures, and could endanger the tenants.

The project Sisso is hoping to introduce is a government initiative aimed at optimizing land usage in urban residential areas. Contractors come to demolish old buildings and replace them with new ones, offering the tenants an opportunity to upgrade their apartments without having to move, except for the duration of construction. This "evacuation-construction" project is being undertaken in several cities across the country.

Rafael says tall buildings are dangerous because they might be hit by ricochets from weapons tests inside the compound. This claim appears to be valid, because explosions do drive most of the ricochets upward. Yet independent demolition experts who reviewed the situation say the risk would not exceed that facing the lower buildings.

"It makes no difference whether the city puts up tall buildings around the Rafael compound," one expert said. "Exposure to the blast is identical on the top floors and the lower floors. The important thing is to build the buildings outside the range of impact."

But Rafael probably has a different reason for its objection, the expert said: Rafael does not want to have high vantage points outside its gates, where onlookers can observe its secret experiments.

So far, the city has succeeded in lifting construction restrictions for one of Neighborhood C's streets, Yoseftal Street. "The evacuation-construction project has started there [on Yoseftal Street], and we will continue to fight to initiate the same process in different parts of Neighborhood C," Sisso said.

A former Rafael executive, when asked about Rafael's reasons for opposing construction, said: "Many of the weapons experiments are conducted quite far away from the residential areas in Kiryat Yam. The company has very strict security regulations, and maybe they should be bent for the sake of renovating the neighborhood."

A spokesperson for Rafael responded to Haaretz's query on the subject by saying: "Rafael attributes great importance to anything involving safety and the quality of living of people near the company's compounds. Since this is such a crucial issue for us, it has received much corporate attention. Therefore, any situation in which people's lives are endangered is out of the question for us."

Bertha does not seem concerned with Rafael's projects or their secrecy. She doesn't even seem to be too interested in the city's evacuation-construction program. "The tower blocs don't really interest me," she says. "I will probably not get to enjoy them."