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'Scuffles' between Israelis, Palestinians on Jerusalem's light rail

Jerusalem's light rail (photo: Anatoli Axelrod / flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Jerusalem is one of the  focal points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its architecture of settlement is one of the most profound examples of Israel’s control over Palestinian sovereignty. Since the 1967 conquest of the eastern parts of the Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, Israel has moved quickly to ensure its control by building settlements and roads which make a Palestinian state impossible. The latest effort of creating ‘facts on the ground’ is the Jerusalem light rail which runs from Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem to the settlement of Pisgat Zeev in the eastern part of the city.

According to Jerusalem city officials, the light rail is a sign of progress for the holy city. It is been billed as a solution to Jerusalem’s growing congestion and a centrepiece of Mayor Nir Barket’s plan to elevate the city’s pedigree as a modern and international city. The project was completed with significant European investment.

Many Israelis have welcomed the light rail as a sign of progress despite many delays which plagued its construction. Palestinians have adopted a different position to the project, which they argue entrenches Israel’s control over East Jerusalem like never before. Activists with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement scored a victory against one of the principle European companies involved with the project. Veoila, a major French company with stakes in various Israeli projects, announced recently that it would sell all of its shares in the light rail project after criticism from the BDS movement that the project entrenches Israeli occupation.

Amid escalating ‘price tag’ attacks against Palestinians inside the West Bank and in Israel, few in Israel are taking note of recent confrontations on Jerusalem’s light rail tram. In just over one month of operation, there have already been a handful of ‘scuffles’ between Palestinian youth and security officials. Last week, two Palestinian youth were reportedly taken off the tram and pepper sprayed by security officials because “they had their feet resting on seats.”

Confrontations were expected given that the light rail is part of a long term Jerusalem construction which runs through a number of Palestinian areas in Jerusalem. Indeed, the light rail project is understood by many in Palestine as part of Israel’s entrenchment of occupation conducted in the plain view of the International community.  Writing in 2007, the Palestinian human rights advocate and author Raja Shehadeh described the Jerusalem construction in the following way.

As I descended toward East Jerusalem [from Ramallah, basically following the line of the light rail] I realized that the beautiful Dome of the Rock, for many centuries the symbol of ancient Jerusalem, was no longer visible. It was concealed by new construction. This was by design. Not only had Israeli city planners obstructed the view of this familiar landmark—they had also constructed a wide highway along the western periphery of Arab East Jerusalem, restricting its growth and separating it from the rest of the city.

Highways are more effective geographic barriers than walls in keeping neighbourhoods apart. Walls can always be demolished. But once built, roads become a cruel reality that it is more difficult to change…Now contorted, full of obstructions, walls and ugly blocks, [Jerusalem] is a tortured city that has lost its soul. [Palestinian Walks, page104]

The Jerusalem light rail connects the settlement of Pisgat Zeev, a fortress like city penetrating deep into the West Bank, with the centre of West Jerusalem.  When I enter East Jerusalem from Ramallah via the Hizmeh checkpoint, I am always stuck by the image of Pisgat Zeev, isolated and dominating the landscape. Driving from Ramallah, one passes next to the Qalandia checkpoint, an eyesore composed of concrete walls and watchtowers which is the main checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah,  before continuing in the direction of the Dead Sea. The rolling hills descending to the lowest point on earth often provide spectacular views of Jordan. However, the beauty is short-lived. The road abruptly turns towards Jerusalem and you can see Pisgat Zeev with its separation barrier dominating the landscape like a medieval castle. Within minutes, depending on the queue at the checkpoint, you are back in “Jerusalem” and the dinging bells of the light rail can be heard in the distance.

All said and told, the light rail is a clear strike against any equitable two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Confrontations will likely increase as the status quo currently looming over the conflict gives way to renewed movements of Palestinian civil unrest. Just as the ANC targeted railroads during the anti-Apartheid struggle, the Jerusalem light rail might just emerge as a primary target of Palestinian violence.

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    1. aristeides

      What’s this about “feet on the seats?” The transportation equivalent of “stone throwing?”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Eyal

      I disagree. The light rail is there for every one, Jews, Muslims and Christian. It connects east and west Jerusalem, and even has announcements in Hebrew, Arabic and English, which is, unfortunately, rare in Israel. Buses only have announcements in Hebrew. (The only thing that upsets me is that they call the Sheikh Jarrah station ‘Shimon Hatzadit’).

      But anyway, if the line wouldn’t have gone through east Jerusalem, there would have been complaints about discrimination, and about how east Jerusalem neighborhoods are being neglected by the authorities, etc. If there are two states with an internationalized Jerusalem, the current light rail line shouldn’t be a problem at all.

      Jerusalem already has walls going through it, moving the walls to the 1967 border wouldn’t make much of a difference. Jerusalem should have no walls at all.

      Reply to Comment
    3. What Eyal said. Very well put. Besides, when it comes to targets of Palestinian violence, since when are perceived offenses against geo-political realities a necessary pre-requisite? What offenses were represented by Sbarro on King George? Cafe Hillel on Emek Refaim? The felafel joint in the old central bus station in Tel Aviv? Countless inner city buses? Etc. etc. The worst thing the Palestinians could ever do to harm their national aspirations is to return to the bad old days of systematic violence against civilians.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      I know people who regularly travel on the light-rail and they have regularly noted problems with Arab youth harrassing Jewish passengers.
      Once they start charging money for rides it is possible that Arab joy-riding will stop and that will help, but as Eyal and CK have noted, no matter what Israel does, it will be blamed by the “progressives” here.

      Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      “Just as the ANC targeted railroads during the anti-Apartheid struggle, the Jerusalem light rail might just emerge as a primary target of Palestinian violence.”
      What Palestinian violence? Al tiftah peh lasatan. Considering the provocations, Jerusalem Palestinians have, over the past couple of years, seemed remarkably restrained. Besides, many Palestinians use the trams despite what you seem to see as political incorrectness, feet on the seats or no.

      I was wondering why they don’t use pepper spray for Jews who put their feet on the seats, for Israeli public transport is full of them – mostly soldiers and youngsters, none of whom are yet likely to have circulatory infirmities that would excuse the habit. If they need any volunteers for administering the punishment on Egged buses, I’m game.

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      BI, I’ve travelled on the thing myself. No-one harrassed me.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Asaf

      How does a public transportation project that does it best to serve both Jews and Arabs equally, have it signed and massaging system in three languages, and is currently free to all called racist?
      I think it is the first time in history that something is considered racist because it is equal.
      I guess some people just want to see evil in everything. The city invest in Arab quarters? Racism. The city doesn’t invest? Racism. Police take care of Arab vandalism (most of the cases it is not just naive feet-on-seet)? Racism. Police ignore vandalism in Arab quarters? Racism.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Asaf

      I think if extremests from both sides see the rail as a problem (you should hear right wing people complaining about going through Arab quarters), then something is finally done right here. Arabs need to go to city center too. In the end, it is one city, not two. Even if, hopefully, it will be politically divided and will serve as the capital of both israel and Palestine, it should still be a single urban space. Peaple who think about cold war Berlin-like solution as peace, are idiots. Peace should be about removing walls, not building them. And yes, if the city will split in a peace agreement, it will still need a public transportation system.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Henry Weinstein

      To Joseph
      It’s one thing to report objections & critics against the Jerusalem light rail, quite another thing to predict acts of violence in the near future.
      The way your post is written, it almost looks like you promote ‘counter-price tag’ attacks against the light rail, Joseph.
      The ending in particular: “All said and told, the light rail is a clear strike against any equitable two states solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Confrontations will increase as the status quo currently looming over the conflict gives way to renewed movements of Palestinian civil unrest. Just as the ANC targeted railroad during the anti-Apartheid struggle, the Jerusalem light rail might emerge as primary target of Palestinian violence”.
      Do you realize how disturbing it is to read “confrontations WILL likely increase”, “the Jerusalem light rail MIGHT just emerge as primary target”?
      Are you a medium, Joseph?
      Hope you are not.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben Israel

      Okay, SH, I’ll play your game. SOMETIMES ARABS HARASS JEWISH PASSANGERS, sometimes they don’t. I have heard first-hand accounts of Arab harrassment. Don’t tell me it hasn’t happened just because you didn’t see it.

      Reply to Comment
    11. KARL MARX

      James Carroll : “Jerusalem, Jerusalem”
      Ariel Siegelmann: “Deuteronomy: 2:7.” You Tube!!!
      Torah: Deuteronomy: 7:1.16.22. Genocide of God!


      Reply to Comment