Adri Nieuwhof, The Electronic Intifada, 24 November 2009
Despite mounting pressure to withdraw from the light rail project in Jerusalem designed to serve the needs of Israel's illegal settlements, the French transportation giant Veolia is set to be highly involved in the project for the next five years. The company needs to support its new Israeli partner, the Dan Bus Company, which lacks the experience to operate the light rail.
As the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on 23 October, Dan has bought a 49 percent share in Veolia's contract with the City Pass Consortium to operate the light rail in Jerusalem, which connects the city to illegal Israeli settlements built on seized Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. After it runs the light rail for five years, Dan will buy out Veolia's 51 percent share in the 30-year contract, as well as Veolia's five percent share in the City Pass Consortium.
The City Pass Consortium consists of four Israeli companies and the French companies Connex, a subsidiary of Veolia Transport, and Alstom. Dan will need the full support of Veolia to successfully run the light rail for the next five years because of Dan's lack of experience in this area. As a major shareholder, Veolia will provide the crucial expertise to Dan and continue to be a key player in the light rail project.
Veolia has been pressured to end its involvement in the Jerusalem light rail project by several financial institutions concerned with socially responsible investing, because the rail will normalize the illegal annexation of Palestinian East Jerusalem, considered part of the West Bank under international law. Some European politicians have also criticized the company because the project infringes on Palestinian human rights. After four years of silence, Veolia recently attempted to pacify concerns and protests by expressing the company's commitment to operate the Jerusalem light rail on "a clear, non-discriminatory policy based on free access for all parts of the population." The company promised to reconsider its involvement in the light rail if application of the non-discrimination policy turns out to be impossible.
However, statements made by a City Pass spokesperson reveal that Veolia is aware that the light rail service will be discriminatory. In a 23 April 2009 interview with Belgian masters student Karolien van Dyck, City Pass spokesperson Ammon Elian explained how Palestinians and Jews are segregated in Jerusalem, and that the first planned rail line is designed to serve the needs of the secular Jewish population (with one stop in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shufat), and a second line is planned to serve the Orthodox Jewish population. "If Palestinians would want to make use of the light rail, both groups will not meet on the train, because of their different life patterns," Elian explained. The interview appeared in a Dutch-language report entitled "Public Transport and Political Control: an empirical study into the City Pass project on the West Bank" ("Openbaar vervoer en politieke controle: een empirische studie van het City Pass project op de Westelijke Jordaanoever"). Elian further justified the discriminatory service by claiming that since Palestinians are served by a network of buses, integration in the light rail would be redundant.
Considering its own past, it is hard to imagine that the Dan Bus Company management will take Veolia's non-discrimination policy seriously. On its English-language website, Dan states that "the Jewish battle of Jewish settlements for survival, from the pre-statehood 'Incidents' to the present day, has been an inseparable part of the Israeli experience. It is only natural that the Dan Cooperative has always been a central element in the struggle for the security of Israel, at all periods and in all circumstances." Not only serving Israel's civilian population, Israeli military forces use Dan's bus fleet "in times of peace as well as of war."
Meanwhile, legal action in France by the Association France Palestine Solidarity (AFPS) and the Palestine Liberation Organization against Alstom and Alstom Transport continues. The French companies have appealed a court decision to go ahead with the legal case. On 15 April 2009, the Nanterre tribunal ruled that the AFPS complaint aimed at ending Veolia, Alstom and Alstom Transport's participation in the light rail fell within its jurisdiction. Alstom and Alstom Transport appealed the judgment in a hearing at the Versailles Court of Appeals on 9 November. While Veolia did not appeal the ruling, a lawyer representing the company attended the hearing as an observer. The judgment is expected on 17 December 2009.
Recently, the "Derail Veolia and Alstom Campaign" was given a boost at a press conference in occupied East Jerusalem by the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC). The BNC was supported by the chairman of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's office, Dr. Rafiq Husseini, Jerusalem Mufti Mohammad Hussein and Orthodox Archbishop Attallah Hanna. At the press conference, several Arab states including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were called on to end their ties with Alstom and Veolia, until the companies withdraw their investments from and end their involvement in the Jerusalem light rail project. For example, Saudi Arabia awarded multi-billion dollar contracts to Alstom to build the Haramain Express railway, connecting the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina via Jedda. Dr. Husseini criticized the Arab countries for continuing to work with Veolia and Alstom despite repeated requests by the Palestinians and the Arab League.
BNC Member Jamal Juma stated that the organization sent letters to Arab governments requesting that they exclude the two French companies from bidding on contracts were "met with silence." He indicated that it was possible that the Arab Gulf states were not aware of the role Alstom and Veolia are playing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Juma stated that "it is unacceptable that Arab states don't take a stand on this."
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.