The Great Train Robbery

Palestinian flyer. Sonnenallee, July 2013.

Making a mockery of John Kerry’s peace efforts is an obsession of the Israeli right. This week, it was the Likud Transportation Minister, Yisrael Katz, who got into the act, announcing a plan for massive railroad construction in both Israel and the West Bank. This, however, could also present opportunities for proponents of both one-state and two-state resolutions of this conflict, if they can find ways to take advantage of it.

Katz is a fierce opponent of peace. As Amira Hass points out, “This is the minister who recently said on the Walla website that ‘a Palestinian state is unacceptable, mainly because of our right to this land.’” His purpose in putting forth this plan is to connect the West Bank settlements more thoroughly to each other and to Israel.

There are some details in it that seem to appeal to Palestinians as well. Some lines would connect Palestinian cities to each other as well as to the larger network. And one line would also connect to the Gaza border, so, through a rather arduous series of transfers, Palestinians could, in theory, move between the West Bank and Gaza.

Yet even these details are less than they seem. It seems likely that Katz is envisioning a return to “the good old days” when Palestinians had no economy of their own (not that they have much of one now) so working in Israel for wages much lower than any Israeli would accept seemed preferable. Hence the connection of lines to Israel. And, while the connection of the West Bank to Gaza might have a certain appeal, the route would be long and circuitous, and it would involve multiple transfers just to get to the Gaza border, where the traveler would have to make her own way, assuming always she can get past the checkpoint at the crossing.

The plan is envisioned to take years to even begin getting underway on the ground. But, as with all Israeli plans in the Occupied Territories, the land for the railroad’s construction can be appropriated much sooner, or at the very least the plan can be used as an excuse to block Palestinian development in the areas in question. The map of the rail lines indicates that some parts of the planned railway are clearly in areas Palestinians would want to develop, near some major cities.

The Civil Administration, which is the Israeli occupation government in the West Bank, made sure to let everyone know that they had asked the Palestinian Authority for their input. Naturally, the PA had no choice but to refuse to participate. Israel, according to international law, has no right to undertake such a major change to the “facts on the ground,” without Palestinian approval. The day Israel asks the PA to approve anything it wants to do, we’ll know we are living in a different world.

Indeed, since the Civil Administration must have known the PA could not possibly participate in this process, the most logical conclusion is that they extended the offer merely for show and to establish that the Palestinians just “refuse to cooperate” on anything. That has, of course, been a meme of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The Civil Administration is simply following the script.

Nakba Day flyer. Neukolln, July 2013.
Nakba Day flyer. Neukolln, July 2013.

Also following the script was the PA. They obviously cannot cooperate with this plan. According to the Times of Israel, an anonymous Israeli official “…insisted that Palestinian Authority officials quietly acknowledge that the plans, if implemented, would bring enormous economic benefits to PA-controlled areas.” That seems very dubious. But the PA needs to do better in responding to the railway plan, because there is both political and, yes, economic potential in a railway that connects West Bank cities with each other as well as with Jordan and Syria, as this plan envisions, in an alternative reality where it is not constructed to serve the settlements.

First of all, there are the immediate political benefits to this Israeli announcement. The plan extends just about everywhere in the West Bank, and it is long term. It will be years before the railway is even begun, and perhaps decades before it is completed, assuming construction actually gets underway. Israel spent some $280,000 on the planning stage, but the project projects somewhere in the $25 billion range. It is, in fact, moving forward, so money is still being spent on it. Can there be a clearer signal that the Israeli government has no intention of abandoning any part of the West Bank?

This is something the Palestinian Authority must shout about in public. This goes well beyond the settlements, whose expansion is also a sure sign that Israel is not departing from the West Bank. This plan represents a massive investment, not in bringing more Jews into the West Bank, but in facilitating their lives. As absurd as the claims have always been that the settlements, the bypass roads, the Separation Wall, and all the other trappings of Israeli presence on the West Bank were temporary, this would be exponentially more so. While one should never underestimate the capacity of Israelis, Americans and Europeans to swallow the fantasies Israel’s government promotes, this one seems too big even for that eminently gullible audience.

It should be made clear that an Israel that has been going through serious budgetary problems for years is making this investment, and that it is something Israel would not do if the government intended to order a withdrawal from the West Bank. But there’s another hand here. It is one the Palestinians need to look at seriously, and it means the PA, or some other Palestinian body, needs to do more than merely object to the railway plan and refuse to cooperate on it with Israel.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Israel really did pull out of the West Bank, abandoning all the settlements, or all but the three major blocs frequently said to be off-limits. The roads that exist in the West Bank are disjointed, disconnected and in disrepair. All the decent roads are those built exclusively for the settlements. It will take many years to construct a network of roads that can support the level of commerce the Palestinians need to build. A railway would really help. That is going to be the case as well, if a single, democratic state should emerge, as unlikely as that scenario seems.

Then there is the massive cost, which Israel really cannot afford. Certainly the day the Palestinians can is a long way off, and would be even if a sustainable agreement was reached for an end to the occupation. In the best case, international support and investment would be forthcoming. And therein lies another political hook.

Rather than take the easy route and merely refuse to cooperate with Israel, why not take it a step further? Israel came to the PA and “asked for their input,” with all the hubris of an occupying power ignoring its obligations under international law and pretending it was showing beneficence to the occupied people. The Palestinians should not merely refuse to cooperate, they should insist on their right, which is to have final approval over any such project. Of course, Israel would scream bloody murder, insisting that the Palestinians are trying to “pre-determine” the disposition of the land. And then you dig in for a long diplomatic battle. But in the end, it would be a point the Palestinians have a good chance of winning.

Never mind that Katz said that Israel could not carry out the work in Areas A and B without Palestinian approval. If Israel decides to do it, they will, certainly in Area B. Most of the plan skirts Area A anyway, not going directly through it but parallel. Still, Katz’s own words are good fodder for the Palestinian case.

Ultimately, the goal should be an international project to fund this railway system for the benefit of the Palestinians, in the case of a two-state solution, or for all the residents of the West Bank in any other event. It would be a welcome development for one-staters for obvious reasons. For two-staters, it begins the process of moving that idea away from the bankrupt foundation of separation, which is the fundamental reason that the plan has never worked, toward one of co-existence, which just might have a chance.

It’s past time to think outside the box when these things come up. Israel has put forth a plan that is intended to help strangle the two-state solution and entrench its control of Palestinian lands. Instead of just refusing it, how about trying to turn it around and transform a plan of occupation into a plan that helps build a better future? It can be done without risking making it easier for Israel to put up yet another barrier to a just peace, and it’s a practical step toward a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.  More than anything else, it’s a sensible new tactic. And those are in very short supply.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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