Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Crossing The Line - The Jerusalem Light Railway

Nothing in Jerusalem is straightforward. Ehud Olmert, who was the city mayor before becoming Israel’s prime minister, should have borne this in mind when he promised a rapid transport system would open within five years. This was 1995. Construction on the project began in 2002. An original deadline of January 2009 was extended to August 2010. A further year was required.

The Jerusalem Light Rail project has been plagued by problems ever since Olmert’s ambitious pledge 16 years ago. Orthodox Jews have complained about the lack of gender segregation, environmentalists have argued that it’s not green enough and just about everybody has moaned about the years of traffic congestion caused by the construction. The track had to be rerouted after ultraorthodox Jews claimed the Torah prohibited its passage over ancient Jewish burial sites and there were further delays when archaeologists discovered the buried remains of a sixth-century monastery in the Light Rail’s path. CityPass, the international consortium in charge of the project, has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with the Jerusalem municipality over culpability for the embarrassing delays and escalating costs, and two French multinationals have dropped out of the consortium after coming under intense pressure from anti-occupation activists.

And when the Jerusalem Light Rail finally opened a decade overdue and billions of shekels over budget, the problems continued to pile up. Its security guards have been criticised for using pepper spray on Palestinian teenagers. Stones have been hurled at windows, there have been punch-ups between Jews and Arabs on the trains and the American consulate in Jerusalem has barred its staff from using the light rail, saying it’s too obvious a target for terrorism. Recently the drivers have been on strike over wages and working conditions. But in the long term, it’s the debate over the route the track takes through the eastern side of the city that is most likely to bring the service to a permanent halt. According to international law, the light rail trespasses on illegally-occupied land and therefore some believe that it symbolises the permanence of Israel’s grip on East Jerusalem.

Given the Light Rail’s chequered conception, it’s no surprise that there’s a limited service on the day I spent riding the trains. Although it has been open for six weeks, faulty signals mean a reduced number of vehicles are running at close to half-speed. The good news for a city in the midst of an economic crisis is that it’s free. Thanks to malfunctioning ticket machines, the CityPass consortium hasn’t yet taken a single shekel for its troubles. Perhaps the allure of free travel explains why the train I enter at King George station is as busy as a rush-hour tube in London. The first thought to cross my mind is: “Am I safe?”.

“This is what it’s like to be an Israeli,” the receptionist at my hotel says when I admit to my fears later that evening. “I used to have similar thoughts every time I got on a bus. Could this man be a suicide bomber? What’s in his bag? And sometimes I still have these thoughts. It’s what we grew up with and what we’re used to.” Only one suicide bombing has occurred in Jerusalem since the end of the Second Intifada. It happened a few months ago at a bus stop and the sole fatality was a Scottish woman. At the height of the Intifada, you would have to be brave, stubborn or desperate to take public transport. Between 2001 and 2002 there were 87 suicide bombings in Israel, approximately a quarter of which targeted buses and trains. And now public transport seems a more obvious target than ever before. According to some of its critics, the light rail’s very presence strengthens the Israeli occupation.

I ride until I reach Shuafat, one of several stations in East Jerusalem, the land captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1980 when the Knesset passed a law declaring the whole of Jerusalem to be the undivided Israeli capital. This worldview isn’t generally shared outside Israel – the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution declaring the Knesset’s ruling a violation of international law, there are no foreign embassies in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority regards East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. It’s troublesome that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, often say exactly the same thing: there can be no peace unless East Jerusalem belongs to them.

On the platform at Shuafat, an Arab neighbourhood, I meet two Palestinian men. One man lives nearby and his friend is visiting from Jericho in the West Bank. “We call this the peace train,” laughs the local, who didn’t want me to print his name. “No, really it’s more like the conflict train. But the situation here is complicated. Many in Shuafat are boycotting the train but some Arabs are happy because they want to be better connected to West Jerusalem and Israeli society.” I ask if he’s seen any problems on the trains. “I’ve seen orthodox Jews saying they can’t wait until it starts costing money because it’ll get rid of the Arabs who can’t afford tickets. And I’ve heard Arabs say insulting things about Jews too.”

I travel six stops to the south with them and leave the train at Damascus Gate. Here it feels like Jerusalem is divided in two, right down the middle of the road, but unlike the very real separation barrier a few miles away, the wall here is psychological. It would be an over-simplification to say that from where I stand on the Damascus Gate light rail platform the Jews are on the right and the Arabs are on the left, but it’s not far from the truth. Five minutes to the west is Mea Shearim, an ultra-orthodox Jewish area with street signs demanding that female visitors wear modest clothing. On these streets, where a man wagged his fingers at me for using my mobile phone on the Sabbath, you won’t find much in common with a modern city such as Tel Aviv.

A year ago, under pressure from the orthodox Jewish community, the head of CityPass stated that he was willing to introduce “kosher” men-only and women-only carriages. This would be nothing new in Jerusalem. For several years there were segregated buses in the city, with women only permitted to sit at the back.

In January 2011, an Israeli High Court of Justice ruling determined that segregation by gender was unlawful and CityPass has been prohibited from offering female-only carriages. For these reasons, the ultraorthodox remain broadly opposed to the Jerusalem Light Rail.

On the other side of the Damascus Gate train station I stop for lunch at the Ikermawi restaurant Mohammad Ikermawi, whose grandfather opened the eatery in 1953, tells me that quite a few Israeli Jews visit his bare-bones hummus and falafel stall. “Israelis are now discovering real hummus,” he laughs. “The hummus they eat is inedible to us!” Ikermawi benefits from being on a busy and well-lit street corner. Rashid Street in East Jerusalem is only five minutes away from Damascus Gate but you could go weeks without seeing an Israeli there. On this road I meet the manager of Petra Restaurant who says that before the Second Intifada he had many Israeli customers. Now he gets practically none. Israelis are too scared to venture east of Damascus Gate, he says.

I get back on the train and return to where I came from, travelling past Shuafat to Pisgat Ze’ev, a large Israeli settlement founded in the mid-1980s. The shop signs turn from Hebrew to Arabic and back to Hebrew again, and I start seeing roadsigns for Ramallah and other towns in the West Bank. I’m sitting next to Ariel Nura Cohen, a 25-year-old resident of Pisgat Ze’ev who tells me the Jerusalem Light Rail has improved his quality of life because it connects his home with the shops, restaurants and nightlife of downtown Jerusalem. It’s also opened his eyes to new parts of the city. “The train passes through neighbourhoods like Shuafat that I’ve never visited, even though it’s only ten minutes from my parents’ house”.

I expect that through Cohen’s eyes, dilapidated Shuafat must look like another planet. Next to the Pisgat Ze’ev stop there are modern apartment blocks and a mall covered in logos for Pizza Hut, The Body Shop and Home Center among others. I expect to find some Arabs inside the mall; after all, shopping options are limited in the neighbourhoods of Shuafat and Sheikh Jarrah. But I don’t see any. Perhaps they remember the incident in 2008 when a large group of Jewish Israeli youths attacked Arab teenagers with bats and knives by the mall’s entrance.

Binyamin Netanyahu has often reiterated his belief that both Jews and Arabs must be free to live anywhere they want in Jerusalem. And due to an acute housing shortage in Arab neighbourhoods and an understandable desire of wealthier people to move to areas offering better public services, around five per cent of Pisgat Ze’ev residents are Arabs. Although ultra-orthodox groups have tried to prevent Jewish residents selling their properties to Arab families (with those who do branded as traitors), it continues to happen.

In 2009 the Jerusalem Post reported that members of the volunteer group Eish L’Yahadut were patrolling the streets of Pisgat Ze’ev in the evenings to make sure young Jewish girls weren’t dating Arab men. I ask Ariel if he ever questions the legitimacy of his own home. “Let’s look at the facts,” he says. “Before they built the neighbourhood, this area was a desert and not an Arab zone. A few Arab people lived around here and nobody told them that they can’t stay – and today there is an Arab minority here.” He can’t foresee a future in which Pisgat Ze’ev would be handed to a Palestinian government. “We have to remain realistic,” he replies. “Settlement or not, Pisgat Ze’ev will remain part of the Jewish state in any future agreement. It’s not possible for any Israeli government to evacuate 40,000 people.”

I’m curious to hear why he’s never been to a neighbourhood just a few minutes drive down the road. “You’ll find no Jews in the Arab neighbourhoods and it’s because we’re scared. We all remember the lynchings that happening in Ramallah in 2000 [two Israeli non-combatant reservists accidentally entered the city and were brutally murdered by a mob] and for us there’s no difference between the people in the east of Jerusalem and the people in Ramallah.”

I leave Ariel at Pisgat Ze’ev and catch a train heading south. We pass Giv’at Ha Mivtar, also known as French Hill, a Jewish settlement that’s home to a small Arab population. And at Shim’on Hatsa-dik, a Jewish enclave in the Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah (it’s interesting they’ve given the stop a Hebrew name) I go for a walk.

It’s very quiet here on a Wednesday afternoon, but on most Fridays it becomes a focal point as Jews and Arabs stand side-by-side to protest against settler efforts to demolish Palestinian homes and take the land they believe was historically theirs and should be reclaimed.

On my journey back to downtown Jerusalem I sit next to an orthodox Jew whose tzitzit – the string attached to the prayer shawl – drapes down the edge of his chair. Opposite us sits an Israeli soldier in full uniform, carrying a gun in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other. It’s the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and he’s returning home for the holiday. Almost everyone else on the carriage is speaking Arabic. It’s clear that a significant number of Arabs are using the light rail but it’s not easy to gauge how much support for the transit system exists in their neighbourhoods.

The only data we have comes from a poll carried out by Veolia, the French construction company that won an estimated US$500 million contract to work on the Jerusalem Light Rail in 2003. By the time they conducted the survey in 2009, it was in dire straits. The Association of France-Palestine Solidarity had commenced legal proceedings against the corporation in 2007, questioning the legitimacy of construction work on what it considers illegally occupied land. And a concerted effort by anti-occupation groups led to the company losing out on billions of dollars worth of contracts as local authorities in cities across the world dodged association with a company tainted by its links to the occupation.

It may well have been a PR offensive rather than a genuine attempt to understand the impact of the train track, but the results of a poll of 639 people of Arab origin in the East Jerusalem districts of Shuafat, Beit Hanina and Sheikh Jarrah are fascinating. Sixty-two per cent of respondents were in favour of the Jerusalem Light Rail. Two-thirds of people said that the Jerusalem Light Rail will “encourage economic development and appeal to the Arab population”, while 60 per cent agreed that it would “improve the quality of life in Shuafat and Beit Hanina”. Despite such positive feedback, Veolia later announced that it intended to sell its five per cent stake in the CityPass corporation.

It’s not impossible that Veolia acted in good faith, guided by a genuine belief that a non-discriminatory public transport system could help bring together a divided city. There are certainly some Arabs who see things this way. And then there are people like the Palestinian I spoke to at the Educational Bookshop and CafĂ© in East Jerusalem. He labelled the Jerusalem Light Rail a “settlement by train track”.

Before I disembark the train to shop for dinner at the Mahane Yehuda food market, I meet a tourist from Tokyo who’s thrilled by the whole Jerusalem Light Rail experience. “It’s so awesome that it’s free,” she says to me. “I came here five years ago and it was really hard to get around. Now everything is so simple.”

She’s wrong, of course. Nothing in Jerusalem will ever be simple.

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