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Jerusalem's light rail: Judaizing and privatizing public space

Activists disrupt the operation of the Jerusalem Light Rail to protest the deal with the operating company, which effectively bans public gatherings in Zion Square in the heart of West Jerusalem. 

By Sahar Vardi

Activists disrupt Jerusalem light rail, June 30, 2012 (photo: Guy Sheffer)

A few hundred Israelis attempted to reclaim their public space in Jerusalem on Saturday evening.

Over a month ago, as Israel’s social justice movement, widely known as “J14”, was gearing up to renew its regular demonstrations, a request was submitted to the Jerusalem police for a permit to hold a demonstration in Zion Square. This is the main square in the heart of West Jerusalem’s city center, and over the years has seen thousands of demonstrations, from Israel’s Black Panthers and right-wing gatherings against the Oslo Accords, to student strikes and vigils just 10 people strong commemorating Palestinians killed by the IDF.

The reply from the police was unequivocal: there is an agreement with CityPass (the consortium that operates the Jerusalem Light Rail Transit) that no protests can be allowed near the path of the light rail, nor on the roads that “feed it”. This effectively means that protests can no longer be held in most of  West Jerusalem’s city center.  The French company Veolia has a 5 percent share (through its subsidiary Connex Israel) in CityPass and also owns some 80 percent of Connex Jerusalem, the company which operates the trains. This privatization of public space – the main public space in West Jerusalem – went under the radar, unheard of, unnoticed, un-debated.

Last Sunday, and every day since, in the run up to a large demonstration yesterday, the people of Jerusalem (mostly West Jerusalem) gathered to reclaim their streets – our streets.

We went down to Zion Square, we continued to walk on the path of the light rail, blocking every train that came, being pushed back by police including motorcycles driven into the crowd. When the next train passed, we blocked that one, and the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

We demanded social justice, and asked what that means. We demanded public housing, public space, and yes, we also demanded an end to occupation, because you can’t have social justice without justice for all.

But we also demanded an end to privatization – and this might be the most important thing. We demanded our government stop selling our public space to corporations whose only interest is money. We demanded that these companies not be allowed to profit at the expense of our freedom of protest, and freedom in general. And this is why we had to demand an end to occupation in the same breath: these companies profit not only on the expense of our freedom, but also, and probably even more so, at the expense of the Palestinians’ freedom.

The train that did not stop yesterday, in order to prevent protesters from boarding, was deliberately planned to have as few stops as possible in Palestinian neighborhoods – even though half of its route goes through East Jerusalem. Veolia, the company that won a contract to control the main square of West Jerusalem, also received a contract to dump waste on Palestinian lands in the Jordan Valley. The trains that protesters were pulled off by police yesterday are owned by the same company that supplies buses that go through the West Bank, but are for Israelis only. The light rail that occupies the public space in West Jerusalem was also built to strengthen the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, and to improve the connection between the settlements in northeast Jerusalem to the center of the city. And Veolia, like many other companies, has made lots of money from both these occupations.

I am not comparing the two – there is still a large gap between the restrictions on freedom of expression for Israeli society, and the restrictions on freedom in general for the Palestinians. But we must understand that it is the same system, and the battle against it should be united.

We will continue to go out every evening to try and demonstrate this link to the Israeli public, declaring that the interests of Veolia are not our interests, and Jerusalem – all of it – belongs to its residents, and not to corporate greed.

Sahar Vardi is a Jerusalem activist, mostly active in struggles against the judaization of East Jerusalem and militarization of Israeli society.

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    1. Kolumn9

      You blocked the light rail on which thousands of Arabs, Jews and everyone else rides every day. If this article is your justification for what you did, then you blocked the light rail out of spite and then came up with very silly reasons to justify your actions.

      Let me also just point out that you have seemingly declared West Jerusalem to be ‘Jewish space’. Was that intentional or did you just fall out of character for a second? Careful now.. Your revolutionary bona fides are at stake.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Rehmat

      Israel daily YNet (August 9. 2011) – has reported that last month when a 26-year-old Jewish woman accompanied by her husband tried to buy a train ticket from a booth on Yaakov Meir Street, she was told: “We don’t serve women. You can receive service in a different stand two-three blocks away”.

      Just imagine, if this incident had happened in a Muslim country – what that Muslim-hating Jew Daniel Pipes would have posted on his blog!


      Reply to Comment
    3. Sahar

      KOLUMN9, true, and i had many thoughts about the “Jewish space” but in practice my friens, that’s what West Jerusalem is – a Jewish dominated space. – that’s not a good or bad thing, just a fact.
      About who the rail serves, first of all interesting to see how many of the people on the tram supported the protest from within the tram. Secondly, if you think that it’s OK for privet companies to be setting the rules on the streets of any city, than I guess you are right, no reason to protest that, just looking for an excuse – but the facts are that before CityPass and the police introduced this decision, no one tried to block to tram or reclaim Zion Sq., because there was no need to, we could walk and protest freely on them.
      I don’t know why you choose to ignore everything about the involvement of Veolia in the occupation as a reason to protest…

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      This is one of the most arrogant, nihilistic things I have ever read here.

      Reply to Comment
    5. omer

      A quite idiotic article. There is no connection what so ever between freedom of protest and the light rail. when Jaffa st was a road for vechiles it was forbidden to block it as well…
      about east jerusalem, i think you don’t know well enough the situation there. the light rail is one of the only invesments made for this discriminated population, and beit hanina isn’t goig to be handed to the palestinans in any negotitaion, so it’s not really part of the occupation.
      go write on the true discrimination of east jerusale,like the wall, or the lack of infrastructure, or the poor public health & education systems…

      Reply to Comment
    6. I doubt the critical mass in the protest is actually talking exclusively about the occupation. Although you could hear people calling at random “end to the occupation” its not directly linked with the privatization. However, it is clear that privatization is a major block in order to end the occupation and is hurting both sides.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Folkcalled

      Omer: The JLR was not an investment made to benefit the Palestinians of East Jerusalem; its route joins up all the illegal settlements in the area. It’s Zio policy to ethnically cleanse Palestinian lands, and the JLR is just a new tool in the 64 year history of this policy.

      Reply to Comment
    8. WhytheF Dopeopledothis

      This is really brilliant and useful, Sahar. Thank you for making some connections for me, an American, and for illustrating for me that there are many Israelis who understand the impingement upon their own freedoms are in fact deeply interconnected with the oppression of Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Kolumn9

      Sahar, the company didn’t set any rules. The city set and agreed to the rules so that the JLR could be built in the first place using somebody else’s money where otherwise nothing would have been built. Veolia might have built it, but the function of the JLR is to provide public transportation and it does that very well for the areas it serves, including Arab areas whose residents use it to get into your ‘Jewish space’. So, let me get this straight.. you blocked public transportation to protest for public housing?

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      “when Jaffa st was a road for vechiles it was forbidden to block it as well…”
      When Jaffa Street was a road for vehicles it was almost permanently blocked in anyway. With traffic so frequently nose-to-tail what with haredi funeral processions to har hamenuhot, suspicious objects, roadworks and just too much traffic in the first place, no-one would have noticed the protesters.
      I agree with Sahar. It was really stupid of them to ban protesters in the first place.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Deborah

      Really smart posting.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Amir

      What utter nonsense!
      Jerusalem is the capital of Israel for over 3000 years. Every religion is practiced freely. What will not be tolerated is Arab terrorism, Muslim violence and intolerance and Arabization of the city.

      Reply to Comment