Fast train between TA, J'lem to run through West Bank

Critics say the long-awaited railway violates int'l law because the construction has seized "occupied Palestinian land."

Fast Train Track 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Fast Train Track 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel's long-awaited, $2 billion Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway is turning into a potential political nightmare after planners moved parts of the route into the West Bank.
The route dips twice into the West Bank, at one point as a shortcut and at another to appease Israelis who objected to tracks in their backyard.
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Left-wing critics stated that the planned rail route violates international law because the construction has seized Palestinian land and won't serve Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority will "resort to all legal and possible diplomatic methods to try to end this violation of Palestinian rights," spokesman Ghassan Khatib said. He called on foreign companies to withdraw from the project.
Companies from Italy and Russia, the latter state-owned, are helping build the line, and a subsidiary of Germany's state railway provided a technical opinion for one segment, albeit inside Israel, according to Israel Railways.
Israeli government officials say they have taken steps to ensure that the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line would one day benefit Palestinians. Transport Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadiah said planning has begun on an extension that would connect Gaza with the city of Ramallah, the West Bank's center of commerce and government. .
But researcher Dalit Baum said that idea is "a cynical ploy that is only suggested in order to justify this train route as legal." Baum wrote a report on the project published this week by an Israeli watchdog group, the Coalition of Women for Peace.
Most of the six-kilometer (nearly four-mile) stretch of the railway inside the West Bank runs through tunnels.
However, Israel is taking Palestinian lands, some of them privately owned, for tunnel portals and access roads, Baum said. Most of the land belongs to the Palestinian villages of Beit Iksa and neighboring Beit Surik, whose residents have already been separated from some of their lands by the Israel's security barrier.
The train line will run on the Israeli side of the barrier.
Omar Hamdan, the Beit Iksa mayor, said the villagers only found out about the plans to lay the tracks through their lands last year when they were alerted by Israeli peace activists. By then, it was too late to object, he said.
Israel's Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military responsible for planning permits in the West Bank, said while the West Bank segments for the rail line have been approved in principle, land expropriation orders for Beit Iksa have not yet been issued. Officials said villagers would still have a chance to object once that happens. Local officials estimated at least dozens of acres of Palestinian land would be affected.
Work has already started in the West Bank in parts near Beit Surik and Beit Iksa. The first stretch of the 34-mile (56-kilometer) rail line has been completed, starting at Ben Gurion Airport and running inside Israel.
Planning for the high-speed line began in the mid-1990s, but was repeatedly delayed by objections from environmental groups and local residents.
Originally, the train line was to run within Israeli territory on the edge of Mevasseret Zion, a Jerusalem suburb abutting the West Bank. But after residents objected, the line was moved 300 meters (yards) to the north, into the West Bank, cutting through the lands of two Palestinian villages.
"The Israeli planners decided to move the route into the military occupation's jurisdiction to avoid having to negotiate a compromise with Israeli citizens," Baum wrote in her report.
A second segment was planned from the start to take a shortcut through a part of the West Bank that juts into Israel near the Latrun area.
The high-speed train would cut the trip to 28 minutes betweenthe seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv that is Israel's business and cultural center, and the religious center and political capital of Jerusalem. The current train takes 90 minutes and is rarely used.