New light-rail line in Jerusalem rattles Palestinians

Jerusalem's light-rail line, which finally opened for business this month, has drawn controversy disproportionate to its length. Palestinian officials call it a violation of international law.

JERUSALEM // Barely 14-kilometres long, this ancient city's long-promised light-rail line, which finally opened for business this month, has drawn controversy disproportionate to its length.

Multiple delays had drawn out the system's expected completion date by half a decade, prompting legal disputes and threats by Jerusalem's mayor to scrap the US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) project.

Palestinian officials call it a violation of international law. Reaching Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, the railway and its 42 tram cars, fortified to withstand rocks and firebombs, are further evidence of Israel's hope to forever control every corner of this disputed city, the officials say.

That may explain why its opening on August 19 has been met with some surprise, relatively little fanfare and a lot of cynicism on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian divide.

"It's not fast. It's not comfortable, and inside it's crowded," David Shalif, a 19-year-old Israeli, said at the stop in the Gi'vat Ha-Mivtar neighborhood in north Jerusalem.

While his criticisms centre on practical matters, more religious Israelis, such as Jerusalem's burgeoning ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, have expressed concerns about men and women riding in the same cars,

Well before the light rail's opening, leading rabbis of the community, who use their own kosher bus system, had protested the system and issued calls for municipal officials to "cancel this evil".

When the idea was first proposed by Israeli authorities in the mid-1990s to relieve congestion and integrate the city's communities, hopes were high that Israel and the Palestinians would soon make peace.

Now, Palestinian leaders see it as another Israeli obstacle to their dream of having Jerusalem serve as the capital of their hoped-for future state.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation has taken legal action against the two French companies involved, Alstom and Veolia Transport, arguing that the project in occupied East Jerusalem violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the resettlement by an occupying power of its own civilians on territory captured during the war.

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said the lawsuit was ongoing and designed to thwart the "Israeli attempt to further consolidate its illegal occupation and control of this part of the occupied Palestinian territories".

On the ground, the frustrations of East Jerusalem's 280,000 Palestinian residents have mounted for more practical reasons since construction began in 2006.

For one thing, relatively few of them have access to it. Of the train's 23 stops, the three located inside Palestinian neighbourhoods stand directly between Jewish West Jerusalem and the city's outlying settlements, such as Pisgat Ze'ev.

"What can we do about it? It's always been like that here," said Talal Nashashibi, 35, an employee at the National Hotel who was waiting at the Es-Sahal stop in the in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Shufat. He was referring to the city's longstanding neglect in terms of delivering public services, such as functioning roads and sidewalks, to Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem.

In the place of limited light-rail access when compared to abundant stops in predominantly Jewish areas, Shufat's 35,000 residents cite more traffic jams, increased accidents and damaged business. The community relies on one central thoroughfare that was whittled down, from four lanes to two, to make way for the train.

"Come here at 4:30, and you'll be sure to get a headache from all the beep-beep-beeps out there," said Murad Karameh, 26, who works at his family's sport apparel store in Shufat.

"Look at my cash register. See what it says. Zero," he said of the train's impact on his store.

Then there were the surprise archeological finds. Workers uncovered artefacts along the area's main artery, some dating to 70 AD, when Jews revolted against Roman rule.

Some Shufat residents harbour suspicions that Jewish authorities have used light-rail construction as an excuse to excavate for more Jewish-related relics, even as the area's derelict public services, such as crumbling curbs and broken street lights, remain in disrepair.

"They're always doing archeological digs here - every three months," said Karrameh Shinnawi, 39, an employee at an office supply store in the Al Quds Tower complex.

"People are avoiding it here because they know they'll run into a dig!"

Even so, not everyone seems so pessimistic. Khadr Hamed, a 66-year-old Palestinian retiree, thought the light-rail system would make his daily commutes to different parts of the city easier.

"I think it will be excellent for going to the city centre," he said.

Not long after he spoke, he boarded a bus.




Published: August 31, 2011 04:00 AM


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