In Foreign Parts: Israel's Sim City

The accents are Russian, but it looks like Palm Springs
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The tall young man was clad in Ray-Bans, a singlet and a pair of tiny red football shorts better suited to a team mascot than an adult.

The tall young man was clad in Ray-Bans, a singlet and a pair of tiny red football shorts better suited to a team mascot than an adult.

He was striding down the street with the assurance of a stockbroker eagerly setting off for a profitable morning's work in the City. Aloft, he held a badly broken black umbrella, to keep the Mediterranean sun from burning his shoulders.

He was moving through the town centre, dwarfed by the glass and white concrete buildings that surrounded him, and by the even higher cranes waiting to build still more tall white buildings.

In much of the stuffy, fussy city of Jerusalem, 45 miles away, he would surely think twice before stepping out in public in little more than his underwear. But this is Ashdod. The rules are different here, on the Israeli coast.

Portly old men parade about like wrinkled schoolboys in white ankle socks, baseball caps and baggy shorts – as if they had somehow been transported from the golf courses of Palm Springs. Wandering around with a bared (and pierced) navel appears compulsory for females under 25.

Fifty years ago, modern Ashdod did not exist. There was an historic town, whose roots have been traced back to biblical times (the guidebooks say it was the capital of the seafaring Philistines for a while). Today's city was founded in 1956.

Since then it has grown like a simulation city on a spending spree. Its villas, palm-filled parks, mini-malls and apartment blocks have spread rapidly over the dunes of the Mediterranean coast, 30 miles south of Tel Aviv. In 1957, it had 200 residents. By 1993, this had grown to 84,500. Last year, the figure given out by the Israeli government was 190,000, making it Israel's fastest- growing city. Its port is the country's second, after Haifa.

Yet you would hardly know it. Ashdod wears its status diffidently and rarely makes the headlines. So far, it has largely escaped the bombings of the intifada that have blighted other Israeli coastal towns to the north.

You get the feeling, wandering through its streets – past the shopping mall, with its giant McDonald's sign – that it is a city apart, a place with its head buried in the sand on which it was built.

Little more than 20 minutes' drive south stands the electro-sensitive fence that imprisons 1.2 million Palestinians within the Gaza Strip. Palestinians used to come to Ashdod as labourers, and helped build it. But they have been locked tightly away by the Israeli army since the intifada began.

For those living amid Ashdod's mixture of modern San Diego and peeling Soviet utilitarianism, the shell-damaged, poverty-blighted Gaza Strip might as well be on the moon.

The only reminder yesterday was the grumble of Israeli military helicopters, chugging southwards along the coast in the direction of the conflict zone. But no one in Ashdod seemed even to look up.

"We do think about it," insisted Leonid Bogaslavski, 48, an engineer originally from Ukraine. "Ninety per cent of people think we have to drive out the Arabs." But that wildly unrealistic view is, in itself, a measure of the distance between the Israelis here and the Palestinians down the road.

The Soviet feel to the place is real and, in parts, overwhelming. New immigrants from the former Soviet Union – some Jewish, some not – have played a crucial part in the rise and rise of Ashdod.

Between 1990 and 2000, some 70,000 immigrants, most of them Russian-speaking, moved in alongside the existing Israeli population, many of them religious Sephardi Jews. As Israel's economy struggles to fend off the damage wreaked by the conflict, immigration is expected to drop this year to about 30,000 – much lower than the rush of the early 1990s, but still a substantial figure.

Ashdod's Russian-speaking population has grown so large that it has generated debate within the city over whether it will become a "critical mass", large enough to sustain itself without further integration into Israel. To offset this, there are many state-run courses for new immigrants, particularly in teaching Hebrew. But the sound of Russian being spoken seems to drift out of every other shop door. Russian pop blares out in the cafés and restaurants along the seafront.

Slavic-looking men sit outside in the sun, toasting one another in vodka and scouring the Russian-language newspapers for accounts of Russia's performance in the World Cup.

In a tropical bar on the long, straight beach, a middle-aged Russian woman with peroxide hair is sitting behind the counter, watching Israeli television with Russian subtitles. Cyrillic signs are all over the place. On Shapira Street, you can buy Latvian chocolates, "Baltica" beer from St Petersburg and seemingly every variety of Russian vodka under the sun. Parts of Ashdod could pass for Moscow on a hot summer's afternoon.

Tell this to a born-and-bred Israeli, of course, and they will put you straight. "There are a lot of Russians in Ashdod, but this is, first and foremost, Israel," said Yossi, a shop owner – speaking in fluent Russian.