Due east

Shuafat residents claim the light rail will ultimately increase, rather than relieve, traffic in their neighborhood.

light rail sign 224.88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
light rail sign 224.88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
The construction of the light rail is gaining a reputation for being hard work. Disruption to the daily lives of residents and businesses in central Jerusalem, not to mention delays in completion, have prompted Jerusalem opposition leader Nir Barkat to label the project "one of the biggest transport failures that Israel has ever known." But it's not just Jewish residents who are complaining. The residents of Shuafat, Jerusalem's only Arab neighborhood that will be served by the line, see it as more of a burden than a benefit. "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," says Abed Dari, a geography and history teacher from Shuafat, which lies to the west of Route 60 between the Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Pisgat Ze'ev. Like Jewish Jerusalemites, Shuafat residents are fed up with the light rail's disruption of their daily lives, including traffic congestion, noise and safety risks for children and residents traveling to the schools and mosques on the village road where tracks are being laid. Light rail construction in Shuafat began over two years ago and is expected to continue for another eight months, say residents. When it opens, scheduled for 2010, the project aims to relieve congestion and pollution in the city, but Dari and other Arab residents of east Jerusalem do not believe that the rail will benefit their communities. "Everyone here has to use the main road to travel to Jerusalem, but many lanes are blocked by the railway," explains Dari, pointing to the foundations of the train tracks that take up as much as half of the width of Derech Shuafat, the main road that passes north-east through the neighborhood. Traffic is restricted to two lanes in each direction, often shrinking down to one as buses and cars frequently stop at the shops along the road. The impasse can be seen from the Beit Hanina Community Center, which sits on a hill overlooking the border between Beit Hanina and Shuafat. As Derech Shuafat becomes Derech Beit Hanina, the railway works turn due east to Pisgat Ze'ev and motor traffic speeds up as it no longer has to compete with construction work. Most of the road has two lanes running in each direction, but one is frequently blocked by parked cars. "On the main road you have three lanes, but only one where they are building the train. Come here during the rush hour at 7:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. and see the traffic," says Dari. Light rail spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli says that rush-hour traffic will be relieved once the train is on the tracks. "It will be good for the Shuafat residents. The transport service will be increased and there will be less noise and pollution." In the rush hour it takes nearly half an hour to travel from Shuafat to Damascus Gate, but the journey will be reduced to 12 minutes by the train, he says. "The train is not very large, just seven and a half metres wide. It's a very important service for the whole of Jerusalem. There is no room for more private vehicles, the transport in the city is at a bottleneck." Driving south from the Beit Hanina Community Center to central Jerusalem, one passes the American School and the ABC Day Care Center on the left where over 800 pupils arrive daily, many by buses or cars which stop on the road, choking the flow of traffic. A few minutes' drive away is the municipal-run Shuafat Principal School. Although it is not located on the main road itself, many of its 2,000 pupils alight at a bus stop on Derech Shuafat. Further down on the right is Shuafat Mosque where worshipers' cars are lined up bumper-to-bumper outside, narrowing the road to just a single lane. "People want to come to pray, but there is no room for parking," says Dari. Some residents claim that the light rail is being built in their neighborhood because it is cheaper to build there than on the main highway. Dari suggests that the congestion on Derech Shuafat could be eased by opening up back streets to traffic. For example, Um el-Samad Street parallel to Derech Shuafat to the west is already partly tarmaced but is virtually inaccessible from the main road. "We have been in discussions with the municipality to develop these roads for five months," says Dari. "They said they wanted to, but nothing has been done because they said there was no budget." "Three stations are planned [in Shuafat] but it will be very interesting to see if the train is really going to operate there in the future because of security issues," says Haim Ehrlich, coordinator of policy and advocacy at Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence. A border policeman was shot dead and another wounded last week by Palestinian gunmen at the Ras Hamis checkpoint leading to the refugee camp. The village of Shuafat, home to 34,000 people, is geographically separate from the overcrowded Shuafat refugee camp, which lies to the east of the Route 60 highway, around one kilometer or so from Shuafat itself, and can be clearly seen from Pisgat Ze'ev East. Ehrlich also cites continued concerns over the political implications of the train, which links west and east Jerusalem. "Maybe there is not going to be a [political] settlement with Jerusalem as two capitals for two states because there is no way it can be divided with building projects like this with such big funds," says Ehrlich. "It is confusing for the Palestinians in Shuafat and Beit Hanina; they don't know whether they are going to be part of west or east Jerusalem." As the light rail becomes a "fact on the ground" in Shuafat, residents remain pessimistic that the train will not benefit them . "The train goes to west Jerusalem, not east Jerusalem. I think it will be easier for people here to use the Arab mini-buses," says Dari. "It only serves Shuafat, not Beit Hanina or Kalandiya, and people will prefer to use buses because it's too far and there's no point in taking both a bus and a train." Hazem Abdullah, a retiree from Beit Hanina, agrees. "It's not a service for Shuafat, it's for people in Pisgat Ze'ev," he says. "It's not necessary for people here to use it, they can live without it. In Europe they build trains on bigger roads, but they are too narrow here. Why, for what?" But Elgrabli remains upbeat about the project in the face of criticism. "It provides a service for Arabs in Jerusalem. It reaches the Old City at Damascus Gate and there will also be a station near Sheikh Jarrah." In his opinion, opposition to the project stems from fear of the unknown. "It's the first light railway in Israel and people are always afraid of something new. There are 300 cities with light railways across the world. If you want to know why we are building one, look at Paris, Manchester or Sheffield. Imagine London without the Underground, it's impossible."