JERUSALEM — Jerusalem’s first light rail starts test runs this spring, with its sleek silver cars gliding across the city and promising to relieve the perpetual congestion.
But Palestinians see no reason to celebrate.
They hope to derail the $1 billion tram because they fear it will further entrench Israeli control over east Jerusalem, the part of the city they want as a capital. They’ve asked a French court to force two French multinationals, Veolia and Alstom, out of the project and are urging Arab countries to cancel contracts with the two companies.
The 9-mile (14-kilometre) line runs from Jewish west Jerusalem to the largest of several settlements Israel built in the traditionally Arab eastern sector after capturing it in 1967.
Palestinians say Israel is creating more facts on the ground with the tram, just as it has with its ever-expanding Jewish enclaves in east Jerusalem that are now home to 180,000 Israelis.
“The purpose of this project is to make a bridge between the settlements … and west Jerusalem and they use our land, Palestinian land,” said Ahmed Rweidi, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “The train is illegal and the settlements are illegal.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he’s not willing to give up any part of Jerusalem, taking a harder line than some of his predecessors, and insists Israel has the right to build anywhere in the city.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said “the light rail will serve all of Jerusalem’s residents and beyond, Arab and Jew alike.”
The campaign against the train is part of a wider attempt by Palestinian activists and politicians to use new ways to challenge Israeli rule over the lands they want for a state. Frustrated by the failure of nearly two decades of peace talks, they are increasingly trying to hit Israel where it hurts – the pocket book.
Palestinian security forces have been confiscating goods made in Jewish settlements from West Bank shops. Dozens of Palestinian grassroots groups have been orchestrating a “boycott Israel” campaign since 2005.
Inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, they say they’ve gained momentum, particularly after the international outcry over Israel’s war against Gaza’s Hamas rulers last winter.
Israeli officials say the campaign has failed to dent Israel’s economy and bristle at comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa. Jewish activists have been pushing back, branding the attempted boycott as anti-Semitic.
The fight over the rail line comes amid an especially bitter deadlock over the fate of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s refusal to stop settlement construction in east Jerusalem is one of the reasons Abbas won’t resume peace talks that broke off more than a year ago.
But stopping the trains will be an uphill battle.
Tracks have already been laid on most of the route, which will have 23 stations and link west Jerusalem with Pisgat Zeev, the largest Jewish settlement in the eastern sector. Forty-four cars are parked at a depot in east Jerusalem, ready for a test phase that is to begin around March and last several months.
The Palestine Liberation Organization has asked a French court to order Veolia and Alstom to drop out of the project, on grounds that it violates the Geneva Convention’s prohibition of an occupier changing the nature of occupied lands.
The two firms are members, along with Israeli companies, of the City Pass consortium which is building the rail line and is to operate it until 2036.
The court ruled in December that it has jurisdiction, but has not set a date for the next hearing.
The Abbas government is also urging Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to cut business ties with the firms. Among other projects in the region, Alstom is involved in building a rail line between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Palestinian officials say they will raise the issue at a March summit of the Arab League.
“This is the least Arabs can do to support our rights in Jerusalem,” said Rweidi, the Abbas adviser.
PLO officials said they were unaware of any actions taken by Arab governments. Saudi Arabia has kept silent about the pressure.
Veolia officials in Israel told AP the company is in the process of transferring its 5 per cent share in the Jerusalem rail project to Israel’s Dan bus company. But they insist it’s strictly a business decision. The proposed sale would have to be approved by the consortium, but that may take several years.
Alstom, which is providing the rail cars, defended the project.
Spokesman Philippe Kasse rejected claims that the tram creates a new reality on the ground, noting that buses now service the future train route.
“We are told (by critics) that this tramway is a weapon designed to make irreversible the annexation of east Jerusalem and the colonization policy led by Israel,” he wrote in an emailed response. “Replacing an existing bus line by a tramway is neither using warfare nor establishing a political fait accompli.”
Jerusalem municipality spokesman Stephan Miller defended the rail project as beneficial to both Arabs and Jews. The train will make three stops in the Arab neighbourhood of Shuafat. Some residents there expressed hope it will ease chronic congestion, while others complained that the tracks use up two lanes of their four-lane main road.
Hind Khoury, a Palestinian diplomat in France involved in the legal battle against the tram, said the campaign is a measure of Palestinian frustration.
“In the last few years, we were still hoping that the peace process would be credible enough to come to a conclusion,” she said. “Now we are taking the legal route.”