Jerusalem train – can it overcome settlers' objection?

Published April 15th, 2007 - 07:07 GMT

In the recently held Arab summit in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, leaders of all Arab nations once again decided to offer full peace relations to Israel. The final resolution of the summit, which called on Israel to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative, has created new hopes for peace in the region. 


The 19th Arab summit re-launched the Arab Peace Initiative that was originally endorsed in 2002. The Arab Initiative has been calling for full normalization between Arabs and Israelis in return for full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in 1967.


The Initiative highlights that the Palestinian question is a fundamental issue in the Middle East conflict and that arriving at a just solution would lead the region to stability and economic prosperity.


Regarding the Palestinian plight, all the Arab leaders have stressed the need to see "on the ground" vital projects which will help alleviate certain struggles and hardships Palestinians are facing on a daily basis. Many Palestinians see extra importance to implement projects for the benefit of residents of Arab east Jerusalem in the course of turning it in the future to the capital of Palestine.


So far, a handful of international firms have responded to the challenge, but it seems this will change soon. According to Palestinian sources, several important projects are in the pipeline and if implemented can in fact improve the standards of living of Jerusalemites.   
One of these projects is the Jerusalem Light Rail Project (JLRP), which many even call it "peace train". The JLRP consists of initially one and in a later phase possibly multiple light rail lines to provide fast and efficient public transportation to and in Jerusalem.


The first line is currently under construction and scheduled for completion early in 2009. It will run from the north through the Arab village of Shuefat south to central Jerusalem. JLRP is promoted as a unifying project as it aims to serve not only Jews and but also end the isolation of the Palestinians in the Jerusalem area.


Observers claim that the tramway will feature many advantages for the residents of the Arab east Jerusalem. Experts note that as in many other parts of the world the development of a tramway has a huge potential to create enormous business opportunities. First, if implemented as planned the light train will ease the access of many Palestinians to central Jerusalem in their search for working places. It will also have the potential to boost the commercial activities along the stations in the Arab areas and attract additional Arab population to come and settle in the areas served by the train..


In the recently opened fancy "Dahyha" restaurant in Shuefat, Mohammad, after learning more on the benefits of the train, said: "At first glance, I think the train project seems good. We suffer here from lack of work and if the train can help, this will be good." Indeed, in the past years the Arab residents of Jerusalem have experienced a severe economic slump. A main reason for this is Israel's separation barrier around east Jerusalem which has increased Palestinian unemployment, stopped children from going to school and displaced the local population, according to a report by US, European and other international donors. This is certainly true in Shuefat which is sandwiched between two Jewish settlements built illegally after the 1967 war.


Beyond the economic aspects, there is also a political issue regarding the JLRP. The tramway is planned to serve both the Palestinians and their bitter rivals – the Jewish settlers from around Jerusalem and especially those from "Pissgat Zeev", which is located to the north of Jerusalem.


"I don't think this train will work," said Munir, a 27 year old student from al Quds University. He believes the Jewish settlers will foil the project. "They (settlers) will destroy this project when they hear it could help us. Do you imagine that the Jews will support such a project which can stop the Judaization of Jerusalem?"


The fear from the powerful influence of settlers in Israeli politics is contributing to the Palestinian skeptic approach to the JLRP. Off the record, Palestinian officials, however, argue that the train in its later stages could extend also to the Palestinian "business capital" city of Ramallah and the surrounding areas. This of course is pending on a radical change in the region's security environment. Thus, the train may attract in the future further investors as it will signal that the Palestinian territories are ready for the modernization phase.

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