* By Abbas Al Lawati, Staff Reporter
* Published: December 25, 2009
* Gulf News
Dubai: Two French transport giants Veolia and Alstom could face trial in France over their involvement in the Jerusalem Light Rail project that aims to link the eastern and western parts of Occupied Jerusalem to Jewish colonies in the West Bank.
Campaigners against the two companies have won a major step in a legal battle in France that they see as necessary to curb Israel’s expansion in occupied Palestine, and set a precedent for companies in Europe eyeing Israeli contracts in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem.
Alstom was unsuccessful in preventing a Nanterre court from hearing the case against the companies when the Appeals Court of Versailles ruled on December 17 that the Nanterre court, where the case was first filed, had the jurisdiction to hear it.
A spokesperson for Alstom however told Gulf News that the company is now “considering to appeal to the French supreme court”, the Cour de cassation, in Paris.
The case was brought against Veolia Transport, Alstom and Alstom Transport by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the advocacy group Association France-Palestine Solidarité (AFPS) in February 2007.
Proceedings against the two companies could start if they choose not to appeal to the supreme court.
“The decision sets a worrying precedent for French companies operating in occupied territory,” said Adri Nieuwhof, a Switzerland based human rights advocate who has campaigned against the two companies’ operations in Palestine.
“This means that other companies could also be held accountable for their operations on occupied territory. The two companies would be deeply worried about this; they have been putting tremendous effort into delaying this case,” she said.
The decision comes at an important period in relations between Israel and the European Union. The EU effectively rejected Israel’s claims of sovereignty over Occupied East Jerusalem in a statement by its foreign ministers earlier this month.
The ruling is expected to embarrass the French government. France had opposed the EU declaration on the sovereignty of Jerusalem. The involvement of the French companies in the rail project also had the blessings of the government.
The deal was signed in the presence of then ambassador to Israel, and a source close to one of the companies has said that the companies were “encouraged” by the French government, then under President Jaques Chirac, to enter the contracts.
Nieuwhof said that while the independence of the French legal system is not in question, the government could try to interfere. “I don’t know how much space they will have to interfere though. The government does not want to be seen to defend those who facilitate the annexation of Jerusalem,” she said.
Campaigners say the two companies have collectively lost $7 billion in opportunity cost in Eur-ope.
The companies however continue to function in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Campaigners have appealed for Gulf states not to grant the two companies contracts for the planned pan-GCC railway project, estimated to cost up to $25 billion.