Once extolled as a symbol of coexistence by the Israeli government, the Jerusalem light rail embodies a city on edge.
Snaking through the city for nine miles, the train leaves from Mount Herzl, Israel’s national monument, and through the Jerusalem markets at Mahane Yehuda, passing the Old City walls and Damascus Gate, driving down the Green Line, skirting the Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods where stones are thrown at cars travelling during the Sabbath, passing the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem occupied since 1967 and all the way to the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev.
The light rail was opened in 2011 and was hailed — by some — as a representation of reconciliation, bringing together Israelis and Palestinians on shared public transport.
There were Ultra-Orthodox men under their black hats and coats opposite Palestinian Jerusalemites on their way to work; Israeli Haredi females nodding their heads and mouthing the Torah and, almost always, pushing children in prams facing Palestinian women in their hijabs. Some Palestinians also use the transport to go to al-Aqsa (when they can) because the journey is quicker and shorter by tram. Then there are the soldiers — who travel for free — letting their weapons hang loose (I won’t forget the first time a soldier fell asleep next to me with his gun inadvertently pointing at me!) and plain clothed security guards moving around with their ear pieces and handguns. Of course there are then the tourists always looking slightly lost — although in July they had mostly fled by the end of the month and I know many people in the city who will never use any public transport in fear of terror attacks as it was hit so often and brutally during the 2000s Intifada.
But in a country where Israelis and Palestinians almost never meet, at least they were travelling on the same transport. Since July, however, tensions in Jerusalem have risen, from the summer riots in the aftermath of the murder of three Israelis in Gush Etzion and a Palestinian from Shu’fat to the attack on the Har Nof synagogue which left five people — and the two assailants — dead.
An attack at Ammunition Hill by a Hamas operative using his car as a battering ram in October left two people dead — a three month year old American-Israeli girl in her pushchair and a 22-year-old Ecuadorian. Palestinian media — and the driver’s mother — said the attack had been “a hit-and-run car accident” although Hamas praised it as a “daring operation”. An attack at Shimon HaTzadik – one stop west of Ammunition Hill — took place in early November, leaving two people and the attacker dead.As a result of the two attacks, large concrete blocks have been installed to prevent further atrocities.
When I was in Jerusalem, I must have taken the light rail from the Ammunition Hill station at least 60 or 70 times. The tram would always stop at the station just before Shu’fat — and from the picture taken in Shu’fat, you can see why. The light rail station was destroyed, its machines smashed.
Today far fewer Palestinians take the tram — partly because the stations are unable to function after being attacked during the riots. And many of the trams on the modern transport system are scarred from the battle of the past few months. According to Haaretz, recently a third of the carriages were too damaged to be used and passenger numbers were down 20%. CityPass – the company responsible for the trains — said 40% had been damaged and in August put this figure at a staggering 65%.
What was thought by some to be a symbol of coexistence has only turned into an emblem of Jerusalem’s hatred and hostility.
By Tom Fenton