Veolia reportedly drops light rail project, but campaign goes on

14 June 2009

On 8 June the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz announced that French transport giant Veolia might abandon the light rail project that will connect Jerusalem with several illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land. Reports also indicate that Veolia wants to pull out of the 30-year contract to operate the train and is also reportedly trying to sell its five percent stake in the City Pass consortium to Israeli bus companies.

The City Pass consortium consists of French companies Alstom and Connex (Veolia Transport), two Israeli companies, as well as the Israeli Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi. The consortium holds the contract with the State of Israel for the construction of the light rail project. News of Veolia’s withdrawal came a few days after the Israeli government filed a claim with court arbitrators against City Pass over delays in the project. Haartez noted heightened tensions between the partners in City Pass, mainly between equipment provider Alstom, operator Veolia and the Israeli contractor Ashtrom. Alstom’s trains have already been delivered and are stored at the company’s depot near the French Hill settlement, in occupied East Jerusalem.

The “Derail Veolia and Alstom Campaign,” carried out by activists in many countries, is pressuring the two French transport companies to quit the light rail project. In early June, the leading French newspaper Le Monde published an article summing up the successes of the campaign, reporting that the company is losing money because of the publicity of its role in a project that is in violation of international law. After pressuring the mayor of Tehran over Veolia’s role in developing the city’s transport system, the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission was informed two weeks ago of Tehran’s decision to cancel Veolia’s involvement in the transport system. To date, Veolia has steadfastly refused to provide information about its participation in the light rail project.

Speaking to Gulf News on 9 June, Ambassador Hind Khoury, representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Paris, stated that Veolia’s possible withdrawal from the light rail project was “certainly a positive development and a success,” but “we can’t declare victory while the infrastructure of this tramway sits on occupied Palestinian land.” Khoury said that it was time to put pressure on Alstom to abandon the project because it plays a bigger role in the tramway than Veolia.

The pressure on Alstom to quit the light rail project is indeed increasing. Gulf News reported on 30 May that Palestinian Authority (PA) officials intensified diplomatic efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to exclude Alstom from a multi-billion dollar contract for the Haramain Express railway. The Haramain Express will connect the holy cities of Mecca and Medina via Jedda. PA officials hope they will be able to pressure Alstom through Saudi Arabia.

In a television interview with Al Jazeera on 11 December 2008, Alstom’s Heriberto Biarte explained that the company participated in the Jerusalem light rail project to improve the existing transport system and stated “We have no political, no diplomatic position to take.” However, with its involvement in the project, activists argue, Alstom is directly implicated in maintaining illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the company is playing a key role in Israel’s attempt to make its annexation of Palestinian East Jerusalem irreversible.

The “Derail Veolia and Alstom Campaign” plans to keep the pressure on Veolia and Alstom until the companies end their services to Israel’s activities and projects that are in violation of international law. Targeted projects include the Jerusalem light rail project, the bus services that link Jerusalem with the illegal settlements, and the dumping of waste from Israel and the illegal settlements in Tovlan landfill in the Jordan Valley, occupied West Bank.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.