Israeli fast train to run through West Bank
Planners stand accused of confiscating Palestinian land for a train that does not serve West Bankers.
Fri, Nov 05 2010 at 1:53 PM
DIVIDED RAILS: A high-speed train between the two main cities seems like a must for any developed nation, but Israel's long-awaited $2 billion Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway is turning into a potential political nightmare. (Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
A high-speed train between two major cities seems like a must for a developed nation. But Israel's long-awaited, $2 billion Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway is turning into a potential political nightmare after planners moved parts of the route into the West Bank.
The route dips twice into the war-won territory, at one point as a short cut and at another to appease Israelis who objected to tracks in their backyard.
Critics say that violates international law because the construction has seized occupied Palestinian land and won't serve West Bankers.
The Palestinian self-rule government will "resort to all legal and possible diplomatic methods to try to end this violation of Palestinian rights," spokesman Ghassan Khatib said. He called on foreign companies to withdraw from the project.
Companies from Italy and Russia, the latter state-owned, are helping build the line, and a subsidiary of Germany's state railway provided a technical opinion for one segment, albeit inside Israel, according to Israel Railways.
Any project that deepens Israel's hold over West Bank lands would appear to run counter to long-held positions of the European Union and Russia, both members of the Quartet of Mideast mediators. The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, and the United States is trying to get the two sides into negotiations for a peace deal creating a state.
Who will benefit?
Israeli government officials say they have taken steps to ensure that the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line would one day benefit Palestinians. Transport Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadiah said planning has begun on an extension that would connect Gaza with the city of Ramallah, the West Bank's center of commerce and government. The West Bank and Gaza lie on opposite sides of Israel, and most of that line would run through Israeli territory.
But researcher Dalit Baum said that idea is "a cynical ploy that is only suggested in order to justify this train route as legal." Baum wrote a report on the project published this week by an Israeli watchdog group, the Coalition of Women for Peace.
Most of the 6-kilometer (3.75 mile) stretch of the railway inside the West Bank runs through tunnels.
However, Israel is taking Palestinian lands, some of them privately owned, for tunnel portals and access roads, Baum said. Most of the land belongs to the Palestinian villages of Beit Iksa and neighboring Beit Surik, whose residents have already been cut off from some of their lands by the construction of Israel's West Bank separation barrier.
The train line will run on the "Israeli" side of the barrier, which Israel portrays as a shield against militants, but which others see as an attempt to draw borders unilaterally.
Omar Hamdan, the Beit Iksa mayor, said the villagers only found out about the plans to lay the tracks through their lands last year when they were alerted by Israeli peace activists. By then, it was too late to object, he said.
Israel's Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military responsible for planning permits in the West Bank, said while the West Bank segments for the rail line have been approved in principle, land expropriation orders for Beit Iksa have not yet been issued. Officials said villagers would still have a chance to object once that happens. Local officials estimated at least dozens of acres of Palestinian land would be affected.
Work has already started in the West Bank in parts near Beit Surik and Beit Iksa. The first stretch of the 34-mile (56-kilometer) rail line has been completed, starting at Ben Gurion Airport and running inside Israel.
A long road for a high-speed train
Planning for the high-speed line began in the mid-1990s, but was repeatedly delayed by objections from environmental groups and local residents.
Originally, the train line was to run within Israeli territory on the edge of Mevasseret Zion, a town just west of Jerusalem and abutting the West Bank. But after residents objected, the line was moved 300 meters (yards) to the north, into the West Bank, cutting into the two Palestinian villages.
"The Israeli planners decided to move the route into the military occupation's jurisdiction to avoid having to negotiate a compromise with Israeli citizens," Baum wrote in her report.
A second segment was planned from the start to take a short cut through a West Bank enclave that juts into Israel near the Latrun area.
The high-speed train would cut the trip to 28 minutes between Tel Aviv, the seaside metropolis that is Israel's business and cultural center, and the religious center and declared political capital Jerusalem. The current train takes 90 minutes and is rarely used.
The two main highways linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, one of which also briefly enters the West Bank enclave at Latrun, often see massive traffic jams at the entrance to each city.
Russia's government-owned Moscow Metrostroy construction company and the private Italian firm Pizzarotti are involved in building the line, along with Israeli firms. The Russia firm is working on one of the West Bank stretches, said Yaron Ravid, a deputy to the director general of Israel Railways. Pizzarotti is building a segment inside Israel, he said, but an access road to the work site goes through the West Bank.
Officials at Pizzarotti and Moscow Metrostroy did not respond to requests for comment.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russia's prime minister, said Metrostroy is required to "fulfill the requirements" under the tender it won. Peskov said only the Israeli government can address the political issues surrounding the railway.
DB International, a subsidiary of German state railway Deutsche Bahn, offered a technical opinion in 2005 about a segment inside Israel amid a dispute between Israel Railways and environmental groups, said Ravid. But Baum, the researcher, said DB International should have been aware of the problematic West Bank segments.
DB International said that it was not involved in the planning or technical layout of the line.
(Additional reporting by Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Ban; Elena Doroschenkova and David Nowak in Moscow; Melissa Eddy in Berlin; and Alessandra Rizzo in Rome.)
Copyright 2010 AP News