Israel pushes West Bank railway, as Palestinians brace for land grabs
SALFIT, Occupied West Bank - For Mahmoud Shuqair, life in the small village of al-Zawiyeh is a waiting game. Once the proud owner of dozens of acres of land, Shuqair has seen swathes of his family land confiscated by Israel over the years.
Now, with the resurfacing of previously shelved plans of a settler-only light rail connecting West Bank settlements with Israeli cities inside the Green Line, Shuqair says it’s only a matter of time before he sees nearly all of his land taken by the state of Israel.
'I have no idea when the day will come that they finally come to destroy my house and take the rest of my land, but I do know that it will, eventually'
- Mahmoud Shuqair, al-Zawiyeh resident
“I have no idea when the day will come that they finally come to destroy my house and take the rest of my land, but I do know that it will, eventually,” he told Middle East Eye as he stood up to smoke a cigarette out his living room window, the Tel Aviv skyline visible to the west.
Shuqair’s home sits less than 10km from the Green Line, on the major Route 5 highway connecting central Israel with the mega-settlement of Ariel, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank, which was given city status by Israeli authorities in 1998, and declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “the capital of Judea and Samaria” in 2010.
Late last month, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz announced that he had instructed authorities to advance plans for a 4 billion shekel ($1.16 bn) railway project to connect Ariel with major towns and cities inside Israel.
Israeli media quoted Katz boasting about the positive effects the railway is expected to have on the lives of Israeli settlers, including shorter commute times and less traffic and congestion on the roads.
But for the thousands of Palestinians like Shuqair, living in the path of the planned railway, the attempts to normalise life for Israeli settlers means further restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement and even more land grabs.
‘We are being erased from this land’
The West Bank light rail was first introduced six years ago by Katz, who has for years been vocal about his dreams of achieving an extensive network of lines connecting settlements across the occupied Palestinian territory.
While the initial 2012 plans called for 475km of railway extending from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north, to several lines cutting from east to west, the new plans announced in March are said to still be in their early planning stages.
The Times of Israel reported that the new plan, expected to be completed in 2025, will see a light rail train roll through the northern West Bank.
While Katz has reportedly instructed a transport company to test three different options for the new line, all of the plans propose a railway running from Ariel along Route 5, and right up to the Green Line, leaving Shuqair with no doubt that his home and agricultural land will be among the first Palestinian casualties.
“I have been hearing about this mysterious railway for years, but now it all seems so much closer to being realised,” he said.
Looking out from his balcony, he pointed out the highway below as Israeli cars whizzed by.
“All of this land you see here belongs ... belonged, to my family,” he said, adding that of the 45 acres of agricultural land belonging to his family, Israel has confiscated nearly half for various settler infrastructures.
“See there, just above the highway, that too is my land,” Shuqair said, pointing to a cluster of homes in the illegal Elkana settlement, beside them a road built exclusively for the settlers, closed off by hundreds of meters of barbed wire fence.
“Before, it used to take me five minutes to reach my olive grove over there,” he said pointing to the area around Elkana.
“But now with the highway and the fence, I have to walk for 30 minutes in a huge circle just to arrive.”
For Israeli authorities, one of the major selling points of the railway is the convenience it would offer to the thousands of Israeli settlers living in Ariel and the surrounding settlements.
“The majority of Ariel residents work along the route of the [planned] train, which passes through the Barkan industrial zone. The new light rail will enable them to reach their workplaces, shopping centres, or entertainment venues quickly and safely,” the Times of Israel quoted Katz as saying.
The move is being regarded as just one part in a series of steps by right-wing Israeli politicians to “normalise life” for the estimated 500-600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank by “erasing the Green Line and improving the link between the settlements and the rest of the country,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
“All of these things are being done to help the lives of people living here illegally,” Shuqair said with a tone of defeat, “while we, Palestinians, who are native to this land, are being erased by these settlements, roads, and trains.”
Fifteen kilometres east of al-Zawiyeh, along Route 5, lies the Palestinian city of Salfit, which according to the city’s mayor, Abd al-Karim Zubeidi, has seen 30 percent of its total land area confiscated by Israel for settlement expansion.
According to Zubeidi, there are 24 settlements and outposts with 60,000 Israeli residents in the Salfit district, compared to the 750,000 Palestinians living in 18 villages in the area.
Standing next to the heavily militarised fence separating Salfit from Ariel on the northwestern outskirts of the city, Zubeidi pointed to an olive grove just beyond the barrier.
“That is my land, and right over there, that is Fathi’s land,” he said, gesturing to his colleague from the municipality.
“Building a train here will only mean the loss of more land for farmers,” who are now only allowed to pass through this gate once or twice a year with special Israeli permission.
“This is the reality of the occupation, and the story of Salfit,” Zubeidi told MEE.
“It is a story of decades of land grabs, which have separated farmers from their lands, and generations of Palestinians from their heritage and traditions.”
Zubeidi, like Shuqair, has only heard of the railway plans through Israeli and international media, and has yet to receive and official notices from Israeli authorities announcing land confiscations.
It’s a new apartheid system - a train exclusively for the use of illegal settlers, and any Palestinian who gets too close might be killed
- Abd al-Karim Zubeidi, mayor
Though current reports indicate that the rail will begin in Ariel and travel west towards the Green Line, Zubeidi expressed doubts that the government would stop there.
“This railway to Ariel is only the first step. Once they see this through, they will only keep going from there,” he said, expressing worries that if any railways continued further east from Salfit towards the Jordan Valley, the northern and southern ends of the West Bank would be cut off from each other.
Highlighting the cases of dozens of Palestinians who have been shot and killed by Israeli forces over the years at military checkpoints and settler bus stops, Zubeidi expressed his fears that the construction of a train would mean increased Israeli security at stops along the railway, and in turn, more danger for Palestinians.
“It’s a new apartheid system - a train exclusively for the use of illegal settlers, and any Palestinian who gets too close might be killed,” he said.
“This train is not about providing services to settlers, as they say. It is about stealing more land and establishing even more control over the Palestinian territory.”