Veolia whitewashes illegal light rail project

The Veolia light rail being built in occupied East Jerusalem. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

Last week the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the consortium holding the contract to the controversial Jerusalem light rail project surveyed city residents on whether they would feel comfortable sharing rail service with Palestinians.

The bad publicity around the survey — described as racist by even members of the Israeli government — is an ironic turn of events. The French transportation giant Veolia, which plays a key role in the rail project that strengthens Israel’s grip on occupied East Jerusalem, has used dubious surveys of Palestinians in attempt to put a positive spin on its involvement in the project.

On 20 August Haaretz revealed that CityPass, the contract-holding consortium in which Veolia Transport and another French company, Alstom are a part of, executed a survey among residents of Jerusalem. CityPass asked residents whether they are comfortable with the rail line including stops in Palestinian neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, and whether they are bothered by both Jews and Arabs entering freely “without undergoing a security check.”

Israeli municipal officials and the transportation ministry called the questions “racist.” In a letter to CityPass, Yair Maayan, Jerusalem’s municipal director general, wrote that “We were flabbergasted to see how a private commercial consortium dared to address these subjects, which are none of its business whatsoever; to ask such racist questions and to arouse strife and contention in the city.”

The Jerusalem light rail is a component of the “Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan” sponsored by the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality. Activists have pressured Veolia and Alstom for their subsidiaries’ involvement in the project which is designed to serve the needs of Israeli settlers. The first line of the light rail connects West Jerusalem with illegal settlements around Palestinian East Jerusalem on the occupied West Bank, in violation of international law.

Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and the annexation of East Jerusalem are illegal under international law. This status has been confirmed repeatedly by numerous UN resolutions and the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank. As a result, activists have argued that Veolia is directly implicated in maintaining Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and annexing Palestinian East Jerusalem.

In May 2006, Veolia Transport responded to these criticisms by stating that they would seek “independent legal opinions in order to increase our understanding of the situation.” The company contracted with Ove Bring, Professor Emeritus of International Law of Stockholm University and the Swedish National Defence College, for advice. Bring informed Veolia that due to Israel’s illegal occupation, the presumption is that the light project was also illegal. He suggested that the presumption of illegality could be reversed if the local Palestinian population felt it would benefit from the light rail.

However, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) objected to Veolia’s involvement in the project from the start, and issued a press release stating its position in July 2001 (“Israel to confiscate more land in occupied East Jerusalem for the light rail”). And in a 22 October 2007 press release, the PLO stated that the project “harms the Palestinian population and its rights to self-determination.” The PLO warned Veolia to stay away from the project in 2005, and in 2007 the PLO took Veolia to court in France. The objections were supported at a press conference in November 2009 held by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), which represents more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, which took a public stand against the project..

Veolia has dismissed these objections from Palestinian bodies, stating on its website that the controversy around its involvement has been “largely diffused by some pro-Palestinian NGO’s [nongovernmental organizations] and in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian press” (“The Jerusalem Light Rail Transit”).

In an attempt to evade the statements by major Palestinian organizations, Veolia commissioned opinion polls in 2007 and 2009 to satisfy the issues raised by Professor Bring. Veolia boasted that a high level of support for the project was found in its survey of Palestinian neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem. However, their veracity is doubtful as the company has provided no information about the survey methodology, the questions posed, or the characteristics of the persons who participated, refusing requests for clarification.

In response, Bring told The Electronic Intifada: “If Veolia is not prepared to share their information they will not be in a credible situation to argue benefits to the Palestinian population.”

East Jerusalem resident Ramzi Zaniniri’s 83-year-old mother was surveyed by telephone. Asked if she would take the light rail mode of transport, Zaniniri’s mother consented. Zaniniri explained: “But people in [the Palestinian neighborhoods of] Shuafat and Beit Hanina, like my mother, do not know where the tram will go, whether it will be confiscating land or not.”

Two-thousand square meters of land belonging to Shuafat resident Mahmoud al-Mashni have been confiscated for the light rail project, and more of his land will be confiscated for the parking lot next to the station. “It is not good for us, it is good for the Jewish settlements,” al-Mashni explained in a telephone interview with The Electronic Intifada. “We cannot afford to pay the fees. One ticket will cost 15 shekels [$4]. Our income is low. The bus to East Jerusalem costs us only four shekels [$1].”

On 31 January 2008 The Jerusalem Post reported that Shuafat residents see the light rail more as a burden than a benefit. Abed Dari, a teacher from Shuafat, told the paper: “they say they are opening the light rail to make it easier for people to live, but we see that it is making life harder. Everyone here has to use the main road to travel to Jerusalem, but many lanes are blocked by the railway.”

According to al-Mashi, as the light rail uses half of the width of the main road that cuts through Shuafat, it is no longer possible to cross the road. Traffic is now restricted to two lanes in each direction, causing traffic jams when buses and cars stop at the shops along the road. During prayer time, cars are lined up near the community mosque, narrowing the road to a single lane.

The burden of proof remains on Veolia to demonstrate that the light rail project will benefit the Palestinian population and be constructed with their consent.

Palestinian activist Rifat Kassis told The Electronic Intifada: “The illegality of this project cannot be whitewashed with this or that ‘opinion’ poll that may deceptively and very selectively show that some Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem are ‘happy’ with a distinctly colonial project that will cement the Israeli occupation’s control over their occupied city.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quotation from the PLO that the Jerusalem light rail “harms the Palestinian population and its rights to self-determination” to a July 2001 press release. It was stated in a French-language press release in October 2007. The article has been corrected to reflect this.

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