Jerusalem’s Train to Nowhere

The construction project that is just another dead end for Israelis and Palestinians.


Query Jerusalem residents about their new railway and the most common response is: Don’t ask. Then locals will proceed to tell you all about it anyway: a long litany of complaints over the snarled-up roads, broken promises, and urban disasters involved in the ongoing construction of a light railway track through the city. Retailers fume over losses as shopping streets are carved up, shut down, or fenced off while rail tracks are laid at a snail’s pace; residents rage at drastically lengthened work commutes; visitors despairingly shred maps as city roads are randomly closed or rerouted.

But the inconvenience is only the start of it: The Israeli rail tracks cross West Jerusalem and go through Palestinian East Jerusalem, which the international community defines as occupied and which is supposed to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. While Israeli officials maintain there’s no political angle to the rail line, Palestinian critics see an attempt to unify Jerusalem by laying down infrastructure in occupied territory, against the Geneva Conventions. The dispute over the railway has become a flashpoint for Jerusalem’s broader troubles: the increasing house demolitions in Palestinian East Jerusalem, the recent riots in the Old City, and the constant, simmering tension over who rules the holy city, and how, and what gives them the right to, anyway. Even if the construction does one day end, the train’s woes may have only just begun.

The Jerusalem Light Rail project — a public-private initiative — got started in late 2006. Electric trams will run on a single cross-city route with right of way and traffic priority at all junctions. Tracks are being set down across an 8.7-mile line that runs from Mount Herzl to the west of the city, through the center, past the Old City, into Palestinian villages of East Jerusalem — Sheikh Jarrah, Shuafat, Beit Hanina — and ending at the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev to the north. An expected 44 trains will make 250,000 yearly trips on the tracks, charging a subsidized fare. There are an intended 24 stops on the line, but so far the only thing to stop has been work on the tracks — repeatedly. The project has already failed to meet completion deadlines, and a battle focused on whose fault that is — council or company — is currently raging in the city courts.

Meanwhile, political pressure overseas is further gumming up the works. The French company Veolia, which was supposed to run the trains and has a 5 percent stake in the light-rail consortium, has just pulled out after losing major contracts in Europe over its involvement in the Jerusalem train line. A French Palestinian advocacy group got together with the Palestine Liberation Organization and is suing Veolia and another French investor, Alstom, claiming that involvement in the project is a violation of international law — the case started in late 2007 and is still in court. To top it off, Veolia’s planned divestment has sparked another row and is chewing up more court time: The Israeli bus operator Dan, which has no experience with railways, was going to buy out Veolia’s shares, but now Israel’s other bus operator, Egged, is complaining because it too wants some of the action.

Embattled Israeli officials claim that the rail line has nothing to do with politics, that it’s just a long overdue measure to improve public transport services to all Jerusalem residents, Palestinian and Israeli.

But Palestinian campaigners think this is disingenuous. Omar Barghouti, a leading member of the Palestinian boycott-Israel movement, counters that the rail endeavor actually was conceived as a political project and points to the words of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who signed off on the train system with this blessing: “I believe that this should be done. … Anything that can be done to strengthen Jerusalem, construct it, expand it, and sustain it for eternity as the capital of the Jewish people and the united capital of the state of Israel, should be done.”

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