The Light Rail Racist? Of Course it is

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My two kids, especially my son, just love catching a glimpse of the shiny new trains being tested these days in Jerusalem. On our way to Ramallah, if you are "lucky" you can see the trains on a test drive along the main road, moving up to the beginning part of Shufat. In any other country, this would be a wonderful development – a necessary and efficient public service for all. However, this is not any other country, this is Israel and occupied Jerusalem, and my kids’ childlike enthusiasm would be short lived if they understood the racist ramifications of Jerusalem’s light rail.

Other than the usual reasons for the light rail, which includes relieving congestion in the city due to the hours long traffic jams, the political overtones are horrific. The light rail is essentially a service to the illegal settlements in and around Jerusalem, connecting them with the center of Jerusalem and with each other. It is a service for Israeli Jews who would rather skip the morning traffic jams and hop on the light rail to work every day. It is for the young Israeli teenager who wants to make a quick trip to the mall before sundown and it is for the 300,000 Jewish settlers living on occupied Palestinian land to feel they are part and parcel of Israel’s unified and eternal capital. Additionally, it is for Israel’s leaders who want to consolidate Israeli rule over Jerusalem as quickly and as permanently as possible. The train serves the same purpose as the separation wall or the checkpoints. It excludes Palestinians and encircles the city in a hermetically sealed Jewish envelope.

The light rail’s route, however, will have three stops in Shufut, a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem. Shufat is across from the settlement of Pisgat Zeev and is right down the road from French Hill, so it is no surprise the train would stop there. And it is no surprise that west Jerusalem Municipality officials would market this as proof that the light rail is for all of Jerusalem’s residents, Palestinians and Israelis alike.

What is surprising is how far they take their little charade. It was almost funny to read an article published in Haaretz a few days ago about how municipality officials got their feathers all ruffled over a poll carried out by the CityPass Consortium, the company that won the Jerusalem light rail tender, which asked residents if it bothered them that Palestinians would be using the trains. Two of the questions ran like this: "There are three stops in Shuafat; does this bother you?" and "All passengers, Jews and Arabs, can enter the train freely, without undergoing a security check. Does this bother you?"

A municipality official, director general Yair Maayan was livid, calling the questions racist. "We were flabbergasted to see how a private commercial consortium dared to address these subjects; to ask such racist questions and to arouse strife and contention in the city," Maayan wrote it a letter to CityPass.

Amazing, how all of a sudden, the Jerusalem municipality –” or should I say the west Jerusalem municipality –” is so concerned with racism in the city? The question, given Israeli perceptions of Palestinians, is legitimate because we all know how Israelis discriminate against the "Arabs." We also know how the Israeli government has indoctrinated fear and suspicion among Israel’s Jewish population of Palestinians in general, which has partially earned its security justification so much success. Because the Palestinians are so dehumanized, because they are so "inclined to violence," Israel has been able to justify so-called security measures on just about every level. This has led, I believe, to a collective and stereotypical mistrust and suspicion of Palestinians, something which CityPass obviously felt should be addressed.

But that is not my point. My point is that the light rail is racist in nature given that it will basically serve to connect illegal settlements and further strengthen Israel’s stronghold on Jerusalem. Palestinians in the Shufat Refugee Camp do not have a stop, neither do those living in Beit Hanina or the villages surrounding Jerusalem. So, for the municipality to be up in arms over a "racist" question is absurd and it is insulting to our intelligence. The light rail is not for all of Jerusalem’s citizens and the fact that a few Palestinians may ride it occasionally is hardly proof of equality.

So why hide intentions? The municipality must feign equality because Israel claims Jerusalem is united for all its residents. We all know this to be another farce as well. The vast discrepancy between east and west Jerusalem is ample proof of Israel’s discriminatory policies. However, on the face of it, there is too much at risk for Israel to have its light rail also slammed as racist. Over the past few years, there has been enough bad publicity surrounding the construction of the rail, with BDS (Boycott and Divestment Movement) pressuring several companies to pull their money out of the project on the grounds of its illegitimacy (it is after all connecting illegal settlements on illegally occupied land). The French company Veolia reportedly pulled out most of its share of the project last year after pressure from boycott and rights groups. The company also reportedly lost an estimated $7 million in contracts because of its involvement in the Light Rail.

But it doesn’t take CityPass, the west Jerusalem municipality or even the route of the light rail train to showcase how racist Israel is towards the Palestinians. All you have to do is read some of the scathing comments under the article in Haaretz. One response with the subject "Arab cab use donkeys!" goes on to read, "After all they are a bunch of donkeys& behave like them as well."

Another response said, "This shows that the threat of terrorism is endemic. The issue has nothing to do with race. It has to do with protecting innocent riders from being slaughtered."

It does us Palestinians no honor to ride the train when it is finally up and running. If my kids want to ride it out of curiosity’s sake, I will bite the bullet and hop on for one ride. The last thing I need is to end up in some shady Israeli settlement built on land that is rightfully Palestinian.

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