The Light Rail to Nowhere
By Britain Eakin for Miftah
November 25, 2009

Living in Ramallah is like living in a bubble in many ways. The Israeli occupation is not always overtly visible here, but comes clearly into focus once you begin to travel away from the city. I recently made the journey from Ramallah to Jerusalem, which I tend to avoid due of the hassle of crossing Qalandiya checkpoint - I often get stuck at Qalandiya for at least an hour when trying to get to Jerusalem. But once through the checkpoint, I am always glad I made the journey, if not only to expose myself to the reality of life for Palestinians in east Jerusalem, but also to burst the bubble of living in Ramallah.

On the way to Jerusalem from Qalandiya, one can witness many ugly aspects of the occupation. On this trip I took particular interest in the unsightly mess of the slow construction of the Jerusalem Light Rail project, which has disrupted life for many and left an ugly scar on the city’s surface. However, more troubling than the physical scars the rail project has left on the cityscape are the intentions behind the rail’s construction. Israel claims that the rail project was intended to reduce traffic congestion, clean up pollution, and replace Turkish-era infrastructure, but says it would also serve as a model for light rail projects in other Israeli cities, such as Tel-Aviv.

Palestinians, on the other hand, see it as a way for Israel to further entrench its control over east Jerusalem. The rail system would enable Israel to easily connect many of the illegal settlements in east Jerusalem to Central and West Jerusalem, thereby reinforcing these facts on the ground, despite the fact that their existence creates one of the greatest obstacles to the establishment of east Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.

Additionally, east Jerusalem is internationally recognized as occupied territory; its political status has yet to be determined. On this basis many experts in international law assert that any actions taken to alter the status of the city and which deny Palestinians the protections afforded them by international law have no validity. The laying of the rail tracks takes Israel one giant step closer to permanent annexation of east Jerusalem.

In fact, the Jerusalem Light Rail project should be seen as part of a larger Israeli strategy for east Jerusalem, and within the context of the creation of a “Greater Jerusalem.” The vision of a Greater Jerusalem is one that expands over and controls the central portion of the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and covers a 100-square mile area reaching deep into the West Bank.

This strategy aims to alter the demographics in Israel’s favor and to annex as much Palestinian land as possible. Thus the Light Rail project works in conjunction with Israeli policies of house demolitions, evictions, and the expansion of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and surrounding areas, all of which serve the Israeli objective of creating a “Greater Jerusalem.”

The policies that serve to meet this aim play themselves out in a harsh manner. Israel has made construction permits nearly impossible for Palestinians in east Jerusalem to obtain, using the pretext that structures built without such permits are “illegal” as a weak legal justification for house demolitions. A demolition involves the physical destruction of a family’s home with explosives or by bulldozer, often with little warning and with no compensation. To add insult to injury, families whose homes are demolished are often fined by the Jerusalem municipality if they themselves do not clear out the rubble of the remains.

Evictions occur when Israeli settlers commandeer Palestinian homes with the help of hired guards, Israeli police or soldiers, forcing them and their belongings out of the house and onto the streets. Those who forcibly take over Palestinian homes generally insist that they have ownership over the property through court orders. I witnessed this phenomenon in the summer of 2008, when I visited the al Kurd family home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem; half of their home was taken over by Jewish settlers, sanctioned by the Israeli Supreme Court who upheld the settlers claim to the property and granted them the keys to the home, despite the fact that the al-Kurd family had lived there since 1956. They were evicted last November.

In addition to house demolitions and evictions, Israel has been hard at work developing settlements in east Jerusalem such as Ne‘eV Ya‘akov, Pisgat Ze‘ev, and the French Hill settlement, all of which are intended to be connected to Central and Western Jerusalem by the Jerusalem Light Rail. Furthermore, the rail line will only serve one Palestinian neighbourhood, despite the fact that the rail line will be crossing through occupied Palestinian territory, drawing into question who the rail service is intended to benefit.

The answer seems clear – the rail service is intended to serve primarily Jewish Israelis and Israeli settlers, and will exclude many Palestinians from its service, highlighting Israel’s true intentions for the eastern portion of the city. In fact, just yesterday a headline on Haaretz declared that in an effort to re-start stalled peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will tout a 10-month settlement freeze to “save” east Jerusalem. The freeze unsurprisingly will not include construction in east Jerusalem.

In recent months the Jerusalem Light Rail project has encountered strong resistance and many delays, including immense pressure from the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement which is pressuring the projects two main investors, Veolia and Alstom to pull out of the project on the basis that their involvement violates international law. This pressure has cost Veolia a purported $7 billion in contracts, and the company is apparently trying to sell its shares to Israeli bus operator Dan.

Despite this, Alstom has recently stated they have no intention of pulling out of the project and construction will move forward as planned. So as construction of the light rail carries on, so do house demolitions, evictions and settlement growth, all of which leave the status of east Jerusalem as the future Palestinian capital uncertain.

Britain Eakin is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at