Storm in Sri Lanka Over Renowned Israeli Architect's Work in 'Occupied Palestinian Territories'

Rights group in Sri Lanka, where Moshe Safdie is planning a complex, level charges about his East Jerusalem projects. Safdie: 'I plan in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and they accept me there.'

Moshe Safdie outside the Mamila project in Jerusalem.
Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli-Canadian-American architect Moshe Safdie is at the center of a public storm in Sri Lanka due to his involvement in planning buildings in East Jerusalem.

Safdie is currently designing a 68-story apartment complex in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.

In a letter published on February 16 in two Sri Lankan papers, the Sunday Times and the Daily FT, an organization called Sri Lankan Journalists for Global Justice charged that Safdie was directly connected with building “in the occupied Palestinian territories.” They based themselves on an article published in Britain's The Guardian in October 2010, by architect and activist Aviv Haim, who heads the organization Planners and Architects for Justice in Palestine.

In response to the journalists' group, Safdie published a letter on February 23 in the Daily FT, in which he stressed that The Guardian had printed erroneous information about him and his political views, and added that later the paper published a correction.

Safdie told Haaretz that he isn’t afraid of protests against him. “I’m a bit used the fact that I symbolize Israeliness and have to deal worldwide with everything we do,” he said. “I plan in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and they accept me there.”

In another article which Haim published in the Daily FT about 10 days ago, he claimed that Safdie was involved in a project on behalf of the Jerusalem Municipality, known as Project 11155.

The project is the brainchild of the Elad organization, which works to promote Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, and involves creation of archaeological park in the City of David, which is located in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, abutting the Old City.

Safdie told Haaretz, however, that he "abandoned" work on the project when he realized that "Elad tried to adopt me."

According to Haim, the Mamilla project just outside of the Old City's Jaffa Gate – which was also planned by Safdie and contains a mall, hotels and luxury apartments – was also built on territory confiscated from the Palestinians in 1967, but mainly serves Jews. But that claim was disputed by Israeli architect and researcher David Kroyanker.

According to Kroyanker, most of the Mamilla area was vacant until the 1920s. At that point, a residential neighborhood was built to which both Arabs and Jews moved. When the city was divided in 1949, under the armistice agreement concluding the War of Independence, three-quarters of the Mamilla remained in Israel’s hands and the rest was declared no-man’s land.

Some of the houses had been badly damaged during the war, and most were deserted. Over the next 50 years, it was mostly the very poor and immigrants from North Africa who moved in there, Kroyanker added.

Haim’s article also claimed that Safdie spoke out against a proposal to boycott Israel that was advanced by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2014.

In Safdie's online letter, he wrote that he is a firm believer in "coexistence and cohabitation of the land by both the Palestinian and the Israeli people."

Moreover, he clarified: "I have refused, consistently since 1967, to design settlements in any of the occupied territory. I have designed projects within the Jerusalem city limits, where I have helped restore the ancient Jewish Quarter and the rebuilding of the Mamilla District. I have therefore, in no way, contributed to the design of building of settlements."

Safdie said that he had sent Haim an email in the same vein, noting that while he had indeed been involved in projects – in both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, in the old and new parts of Jerusalem – he nevertheless believes in a two-state solution in which the city would serve as the shared capital of both states.