Jerusalem’s tramway line: a hidden goal ?

André Forissier translated by Malinka Mary
2 Décembre 2014

Jerusalem, 3 times holy city, inaugurated its tramway line on August 19th 2011. The line, which stretches across more than fourteen kilometers, connects Western neighborhoods to Eastern neighborhoods, and is the symbol of modernity for the Hierosimilitan city. But it is also the cause of much disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Crédit Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
Crédit Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

The recorded voice announces the arrival of the tram at Tsahal Square station, named after the Israeli army, in three languages: Hebrew, English, and Arabic. When the doors open, a wave of travellers alight from the train, while more get on. Amongst them, Muslim veiled women, Orthodox Jews with ear protections hanging from their hats, but also tourists visiting Jerusalem. Then an alarm rings, announcing the imminent departure. A few seconds later, the tram starts up again and slowly passes the old city walls, thought to have been founded by King David more than 3000 years ago. Since it transports all kind of passengers regardless of nationality, gender or religion, local authorities call it the “peace tramway”.

A streetcar named « peace » for some…

Some say that Israel is a country developing a new kind of Apartheid (the segregationist regime of South Africa, from 1948 to 1991), since it has controlled the lives of the West Bank occupied territories inhabitants since 1967. Of course, such a statement cannot be applied to the tram. No special part of the tram is reserved for a specific part of the population. “Reserved for white people” : sinister and odious signs that could be seen in the buses of Rosa Parks’ America or Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation do not appear here in Jerusalem. Everyone is mixed together. A real melting-pot.

 Veolia, the society in charge of the tram, reminds us that it is the « conclusion of the Oslo Peace Treaty of 1993 », marked by the long handshake between old enemies at the White House : Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s First Minister, converted war leader, and old Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat, former warrior. A whole symbol. The tramway represents a real help, reassembling Western neighborhoods, predominantly Jewish, and the Eastern side, predominantly Arabic. Veolia adds: “the tramway is a way to bring people together, to integrate communities, and to make the inhabitants’ life easier ».

What’s more, the tramway has created jobs for both Arabic and Palestinian populations. The warehouse is located in the area of Shu’afat, east of the city, and the main criteria to recruit employees in charge of the maintenance of the network is their professional skills. The tram also offers a more convenient way to get to work for people living in the east and working in the occidental area of the thousand year old city. 

In the end, this new transportation mode is the materialization of Israel’s entry into the 21st century. Jerusalem, a religious city, and Tel Aviv, a city famous for its nightlife 70km away, are two very different cities, but both have a tramway. The aim is to promote mobility and to reduce traffic in the urban areas, victims of traffic jams, especially since a high population growth is expected in the short term.  

With a population of 750 000 inhabitants in the mid 2000s, forecasts show that the city is expected to have 900 000 inhabitants by 2020, which means a growth of 20 % in only 15 years. The tram represents an investment for the future, in an attempt to prevent the increase of the total number of cars and air pollution. The recipe for success for a booming city.

But what is so special about this tram line? Flashy and noticeable colors like what can be seen in Montpelier’s transport network? No. What makes it special are its reinforced doors and windows. 

A streetcar named « colonizer » for others.

Not only the tramway rides along the walls of the old city by Tsahal Square, but it also spreads along the green line and crosses it briskly a few kilometers away. Created in 1949, the green line is the result of the Israeli-Arabic war of 1948. When David Ben Gourion declared the independence of Israel on May 14th 1948, Arabic countries refused the situation and established a coalition against the new country, and consequently attacked it the day after its creation. But the new Jewish nation won the battle and, out of fear or under pressure, more than 700 000 Arabs left Palestine, their home land. 

The defeated and the victors signed an Armistice, and the green line, established by the Arabic kingdom of Transjordan, was the frontier between Israel and today’s West Bank. Contrary to what was established by the Redistribution Plan of Palestine adopted by the United Nations in 1947, the Jewish nation has obtained more land, at the expense of the Palestinians. The city of Jerusalem is divided into two parts: the West, up to Israel, while the east is given to the sector managed by Transjordan. 

But this goes against the document approved by the United Nations. The city of Jerusalem and its surroundings were supposed to stay united and be placed under international control. This lasted until 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank, the Golan Heights (Syria), the Gaza Strip, the Sinai peninsula (Egypt), and East Jerusalem during the Six-day war. It reunified the city, which has become very important to the Jewish community, since this is where the holiest symbol of that religion stands: the Western Wall. In 1980, the Israeli State introduced a bill, which defined Jerusalem as “the eternal capital of Israel and of the Jewish population, united and indivisible"

An act considered « null and void by the United Nations, and the most diplomatic instances set up their embassies in Tel Aviv, the most populated city of the country.

As for all conquered territories, Israel has established areas reserved to the Jewish population: settlements, judged illegal by the international community. Sinai’s and Gush Katif’s settlements were evacuated in 1982 following the Camp David Accords (1978), but in 2005, the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and West Bank kept growing: Neve Yaacov and Pisgat Ze’ec, with a population of 80,000 Israelis.

Pisgat Ze’ev is the biggest settlement of East Jerusalem, with a population of 50,000 inhabitants. The tramway gives Pisgat Ze’ev the opportunity to get away from its isolation and connects it to the rest of the city. East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital city of their future state, is , according to some, also victim of the irreversibility of the settlement process started by the Israelis. Acting this way, it seems that the Hebrew state deprives the oriental part of the city of all chances to be Palestine’s capital.

Soft power, a concept developed by the American Joseph Nye in 1990, describes the nonviolent means of a country or any organisation to establish its interests. The United States’ soft power consists in the worldwide exportation of Hollywood movies. France’s soft power consists in sharing the adventures of young Amélie Poulain in Montmartre or Edith Piaf’s talent in La Môme with the whole world.

As for Jerusalem, its tram line appears to be one of the elements of the Israeli’s soft power. The line connects Jewish settlements in the city centre, and is, at first sight, beneficial to the Arabic population. Here, no need to wait endlessly, and no baiting as it can happen at the checkpoints between Israel and the territories of the Palestinian authority. Here, the Arabic population is not evicted to be replaced by citizens of the Hebrew state. Here, no blockades isolating more than a million people from the rest of the world.

In East Jerusalem, the Palestinian population even has a word to say. It even seems that they are part of the project. Two opinion polls were conducted in 2007 and 2009, (the methodology of these polls are unknown), with the inhabitants of Arabic neighbourhoods of Shu' afat, Beit Hanina and Sheikh Jarrah. For 3/4 of them, the tramway will reduce traffic jams, and almost 2/3 declare that they will use it once inaugurated.

There are almost as many who think that it will be a vector of economic growth for their area. This is the Israelis’ answer to those against the tram line, defenders of the Palestinian cause, numerous in the world. For them, the construction goes against international law, since the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 established by the United Nations requires the withdrawal of all illegally occupied territories following the war of June 1967. Local residents accept the project, Israel says. As a result, the construction of the Tramway line is legitimized.

David Ben Gurion's nation can say that it works generously for the improvement of all areas of the city, regardless of ethnic or religious background, and assures its political interests on the city at the same time. Muslims, Christians or Jews, all users can make the most of the tramway because they all live in Jerusalem, which Israel considers as its “eternal capital, united and indivisible”