The Boycott Train is Gaining Speed

Friday, 20 May, 2011 - 13:25
London, UK

Deutsche Bahn (DB), the German state-owned railway company, has announced that it will withdraw from cooperating with the Israeli train company in building a railway between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, due to “political sensitivity,” as the proposed route of the train passes through the occupied West Bank.

This is but one of hundreds of signs that the boycott movement (BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel is spreading. The movement has gathered speed as Israel intensifies its repressive measures against Palestinians.

Although it would be easy to overlook DB’s announcement, it is in fact one of the most significant achievements of the boycott movement in the past few years.

Israel Railways responded to the news with a damage-limitation approach, arguing that DB only controlled a small part of the railway project, yet a closer examination reveals how the consequences of the occupation are beginning to catch up with Israel.

With revenues at 34 billion euros annually, DB is one of the biggest companies to date to have chosen not to cooperate with Israeli criminal activity in occupied land.

Although DB’s involvement in the train was relatively minor, its decision to withdraw has now shifted the spotlight to the Italian Pizzarotti company, which is under pressure to withdraw from the project as well.

The Long-Awaited Train
The Israeli government has been planning a fast line between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem since 1998. Jerusalem, the self-proclaimed but unrecognized capital of Israel, and Tel-Aviv, Israel’s economic heart, are less than 70km apart, but transportation between them is inadequate.

The only connections are a congested mountainous road (Road No. 1) and an old train line which follows a route set by the Ottoman Empire and which is ridiculously slow and inefficient. After the 1967 occupation, a road section was moved to cut through a small area in the West Bank. More recently, the infamous Road 443 was paved deeper into the West Bank, taking some of the congestion away from the main road and rerouting it through confiscated Palestinian lands. Buses, minibuses, taxis and private cars queue up in long traffic jams in both directions.

The Israeli government’s plan for a modern railway line between the two cities encountered a political dilemma. If the train route were to remain within Israel’s borders, it would be slightly longer. Such a route might be interpreted as an Israeli admission that the occupied West Bank is not a permanent part of Israel. However, if the train line were to go through the West Bank (the shorter route), it would create a legal problem, and might bring international criticism against Israel for land annexation.

This dilemma served to prolong the already tedious government discussions about the line. The rife corruption and nepotism in Israel Railways did not help to speed things up, and as a result the fast train line has been delayed for years.

The Decision to Violate International Law
Although a route was eventually planned without encroaching on the West Bank, residents of Mevaseret Zion along the route petitioned the government to move the line away from their town. At this point, the government agreed to re-route through the occupied West Bank.

The Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) published a comprehensive report about the illegal train route, detailing its impact on Palestinian villages. This report was indispensable for bringing about the change in the position of DB.

Gilad Arden, Israel’s Minister of Environmental Protection admitted in an interview that in order to enable the confiscation of Palestinian land, Israel had also proposed a train that would connect Ramallah with Gaza via Ben Gurion Airport, but that it has no intention of honoring that promise.

A New Voice from Germany
Germany remains Israel’s greatest ally in Europe. German taboos make criticizing Israel extremely difficult and it is risky for German politicians and journalists to speak up against Israel’s criminal activities.

Last week, the German-Israeli Society in Bremen likened the boycott of Israel (and also boycotts of products from the illegal settlements) to antisemitic calls from Nazi Germany not to buy from Jews. Its petition was signed by most large German parties in Bremen, and demonstrated how German politics is still years behind the rest of Europe when it comes to responding to Israel’s crimes.

Israelis responding to the news of DB’s decision in online responses invoked the argument that since Nazis had used trains to transport Jews to the death camps, the German train company has no right to criticize Israel - hoping to guilt-trip the company into changing its decision.

As the decision of DB clearly demonstrates, change is coming, albeit slowly, even to Germany.

Shir Hever is an Israeli economist and commentator who researches the economic aspects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

This article may be reproduced on condition that JNews is cited as its source.

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