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Confrontation surrounds the Jerusalem light rail

Jerusalem is the focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its architecture 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 peppersprayed 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 realised 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.


  • Joseph Dana is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and Africa. He has written for Le Monde Diplomatique, The Nation, GQ (Germany), London Review of Books and the Mail & Guardian among other publications. Dana also files radio reports about cultural, business and political issues in the West Bank and Israel for Monocle 24 in London. Spending half the year in Africa and half in the Middle East, Dana is currently working on a memoir about identity politics and family history in Israel/Palestine.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 October 2011

    Why this continual emphasis on 1967? Why not the Balfour Declaration of 1917, or the UN resolution of 1948, or even the Book of Joshua where G-d decrees all land west of the Jordan to belong to the Jews?

    The same mis-direction occurs in the Pan Africanist land issue – harping on the land act of 1913, not the division of land between white and black in the original South Africa a century earlier, or the final division at Union in 1910!

    The Land Act regulated land in the white homeland – no whites or coloureds were allowed to own any land at all in the black homelands, which originally included Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho.

    This picking out of history a point in time convenient for some cause is political propaganda, not history or rational debate.

  2. ae ae 10 October 2011

    What do you expect from a country at war? Every time they build and or plan structures it impacts not only on the Palestinians but also on the Israelis’. Your article looks at it from a one-sided Palestinian view forgetting that if it were up to the average joe in Israel they would get on with their own lives and not duck and dive Palestinian missiles

  3. just me just me 10 October 2011

    Well, the fact is that Palestinians are Jordanians, the Arabs don’t want and Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

  4. MLH MLH 10 October 2011

    Have to agree, Lyndall; when decisions are taken and agreements are made in writing, objections are little more than political interference. Would you suggest that the European allies and America now give back to Germany and Japan the reparations decided after WWII? Israel only really became a strong state because she was fighting for survival.

  5. Rolene Marks Rolene Marks 10 October 2011

    I bewildered. What relevance does this have for your readers? Oh yes! An opportunity to Israel bash! We Israelis, Arab, Christian and Jew are grateful for the Security fence. It prevents us from being blown up. Including on the Light Rail!

  6. shaun shaun 10 October 2011

    i doubt Veolia wanted to get rid of its stake for that reason, that is not how business works.

    I agree with the above comments. Poor one sided article that does nothing to reflect a balanced view.

    Shame on M&G

  7. gill gill 10 October 2011

    Never miss an opportunity to bash Israel. I agree Rolene

  8. Facts and stuff like that Facts and stuff like that 10 October 2011

    So the religion that blew up the fifth or sixth century Bamyan statues of Buddha (they predate Islam) wants its sacred sites respected – sacred sites that were built during their colonial period on the holiest site of another religion?
    Where’s the custard pump?

    What’s the talk of a “two state solution”? In 1948 the UN partitioned historical Canaan between an Arab state (Jordan) and a Jewish one (Israel). The Arabs rejected the “equitable solution” – hence the 1948 war. Count ’em (if you can get that high): two states. Pity Jordan, when it controlled Jerusalem thought ancient Jewish graves were a good site to build an hotel on.

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 11 October 2011

    Facts and Stuff like that

    Those heroes of Islam, the Sauds, demolished most of the historic sites of Mohammed’s day in their holy towns of Medina and Mecca, and built a palace for the Saudi royal family on one of them as well.

  10. Mke Mke 12 October 2011

    Great article, and factual. Bulk of commenters, even those who are Israeli, seem clueless and ridiculously biased. Jordan is not Palestine, Palestine is Palestine…. Way to advocate ethnic cleansing without stating it 100% explicitly. And the wall is a farce (illegal land grab), I have lived in Israel with Jewish family, and in the west bank….. The wall is porous as can be, is crossed by hundreds daily, often in gaps, while Israelis even smuggle in illegals to work. Further, there are dual use roads and thousands upon thousands of settlers to the east of the wall! It is a JOKE, yet many Israelis idiotically think the wall reduced terror. It is clear, the terror stopped as the militant groups decided against the tactic and were getting killed in high numbers along with many Palestinian civilians. The wall has next to nothing to do with reduction in terror, and the ease with which people cross avoiding checkpoints makes this painfully clear. But if people like buying Israeli gov hasbara and lies, I suppose I cannot reveal the truth to such people. Good luck Israelis… I never met a populace so confused and unable to make out their own reality, despite the obvious clarity on so many issues. Guess bloodshed, extremism, and religion make for some really fractured mindsets. Plus the Ministry of Truth you got seems to somehow convince enough, or misdirect you very easily.

  11. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 October 2011

    Historically, and actually, the Palestinians are in occupation of Israeli land, but the Americans needed Saudi oil and pretended to support Israel while arming, and supporting, both sides.

    The Sauds needed an outside enemy to deflect attention off their illegal monarchy which does not descend from the family of the Prophet Mohammed, and was won by conquest of the other Arab tribes between the 2 world wars, by the extremist Wahabbi sect declaring Jihad for the Sauds against the other Arab tribes.

    Something which would not had happened had Britain kept their undertakings to both Jews and Arabs (through Lawrence of Arabia) after the First World War – but they had a secret deal with the French that neither Jew nor Muslim knew about – so the former Middle East of the Ottoman Empire was split into 2 protectorates being French (including Syria) which was taken over by the Nazis when they conquered France; and British (which included Israel, Jordan and Palestine).

  12. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 October 2011

    The genetic line of the Prophet Mohammed descends through his daughters – none of his sons survived childhood.

    This rather obvious message from G-d is ignored by patriarchial Muslim men, as they ignore the instruction in the Quran that G-d was angry because the Marys had been insulted.

    In the same way the Roman Church suppressed the message of Jesus Christ that Mary Magdalene was the main discipline, and that the leader of the chuch when He left was to be his brother James, also known as Joseph of Arimathea.

  13. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 13 October 2011

    Female visionaries, like Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale, seem capable of following through their visions with practical common sense.

    Men, being more romantic and sentimental, and less practical, seem incapable of multi tasking in this way.

  14. Ari Ari 14 October 2011

    No matter what Israel does – it’s wrong.
    When Israel doesn’t invest in East Jerusalem’s infrastructure it is accused of neglecting the Palestinians. It is also proof that Jerusalem is not really united.
    If Israel invests in East Jerusalem, is is accused of illegal activities etc..
    The light rail serves the Palestinian population as well. It runs from the northern Jewish and Arab neighborhoods along what used to be the border between East and West Jerusalem past the Old city and then westward. All along that rout the train serves Jews and Arabs alike.

  15. Mark Mark 17 October 2011

    About 2k died in the Gaza war of ’08 and we’re blasted with photos and ‘facts’, but millions die in Central Africa and there’s a deafening silence. Ask yourself: what do you know about the DRC/Sudan/Equatorial Guinea/Botswana/Zambia or Ivory Coast that you learned from an SA news outlet?

    Someone’s got an agenda here.

  16. Peter Peter 9 November 2011

    What a stupid article. The eternal Biblical capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem, was re-united in ’67 in a defensive war. There has never ever been “Palestinian sovereignty” anywhere. It has never existed. Since ’95, 99% of Palestinians live under the Palestinian authority. The terror organization, Hamas, run the Gaza Strip from where they fire rockets into southern Israel (nearly 2,000)

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