A Rail Line That Crosses Jerusalem's Divide, But Can't Unite It

Mar 16, 2015
Originally published on March 16, 2015 10:43 am

David Felber was out of breath when he met up with us at the Pigsat Ze'ev Light Rail station in East Jerusalem.

"We missed the 8 o'clock train," he panted. He didn't want to miss the 8:05.

The 53-year-old was on his way to work at the Ministry of Education in West Jerusalem.

We stepped on board to glimpse how the battle for land touches so much in this region, including Felber's commute.

Jerusalem's light rail system connects the two halves of a divided city. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War against Arab nations almost half a century ago.

Israel annexed heavily Palestinian East Jerusalem, declaring it part of Israel. The Israeli move has never been recognized by the rest of the world, and the Palestinians are seeking that part of the city for the capital of a future state. Two decades of start-and-stop peace talks have resolved nothing.

In the meantime, Israel has built thousands of new homes in East Jerusalem, where Israeli Jews like Felber moved in.

"We're in the biggest neighborhood of Jerusalem, around 50,000 people live here," Felber said of Pigsat Ze'ev, with its modern looking stone high-rises. "It's a part of Jerusalem that wasn't a part of the city before the '67 war."

Israelis built this new Jewish area in the 1980s and built the light rail line just a few years ago.

It runs through Felber's Jewish community, then into Palestinian zones and onward to old Israeli neighborhoods in West Jerusalem. Along the way it has become the target of violence.

The train we boarded with Felber was sleek, blue and silver, sliding beneath overhead electric wires. Felber is a third-generation Israeli. He says his grandparents came here before there was an Israel.

This train ride is a regular part of his commute to West Jerusalem, despite his early misgivings.

"Actually although I use it very frequently, I was one of the big campaigners against the train," he said.

He opposed the project for many reasons, including its route. He wished it would have bypassed Palestinian neighborhoods that we now pass through on our commute with him.

Felber pointed at cracked windows on our train car.

"You can see the windows broken from stones that were thrown at the train. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone," he said.

Palestinians have thrown stones at mass transit for decades as they protest Israeli rule.

The cracks were covered by clear plastic stickers promising the windows would be repaired as soon as possible.

"It doesn't say what's the reason, but it was not birds who broke the windows, neither was it Israelis who did it," he said.

This is not the image Jerusalem transit officials would have liked to promote. A transit spokesman told us the train brings people together. He called light rail passengers a "mosaic" of Jews and Arabs, men and women, tourists and more.

But the rail line was also divisive from the start of construction. Israel was building a train into occupied territory, serving Jewish settlements that the United Nations had called illegal.

A pro-Palestininan group sued the French train contractors, claiming the project was aiding in a war crime, the taking of territory.

The suit was dismissed, but trouble continued, as we saw while riding with Felber.

"Just now when you look outside. It's burned, all burned, all ruined," he said motioning to the scene outside the car.

The train was rolling up to a platform, the Shu'afat station, in the middle of a Palestinian street.

"It was all burned by Palestinians. They were angry, doesn't matter for what, but they always find a reason," Felber said.

Later, we returned to that train platform to learn about the reason.

Last year this stop on the light rail line became entangled in the broader story of the Middle East conflict.

Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed by Palestinians, and in apparent retaliation, a Palestinian teenager sitting very near this stop was kidnapped by Jewish extremists and burned alive.

In retaliation for this, the light rail station was torched.

In this neighborhood we met a cousin of the Palestinian youth who was killed near the train. The man's name was Walid Abu Khdeir. He led us down a narrow street and up the stairs to his apartment. The train line is visible from his window.

"We can see and hear it day and night," said Walid.

For Walid, his cousin's death was just part of a lifetime of conflict. He said his family has long resisted Israeli rule. Walid himself said he was imprisoned years ago for violent acts he committed on the streets.

He told us he understands why people burned down the station when his cousin was killed.

"After that barbaric act," Walid said, "people took out their anger on any Israeli project nearby."

Though the train is conveniently outside his door, he said he rarely rides it and tells his children to stay off it, too.

In any case, the government has yet to replace the ruined kiosk on the platform, meaning nobody at that station can buy a ticket.

From Walid's window, we saw the way the train passes a local mosque and continues on toward Jewish West Jerusalem. Trains rolled by every few minutes. And when we were on board, we did see Palestinian as well as Jewish riders.

We saw men wearing Jewish yarmulkes on their heads, near women wearing Muslim head scarves.

We fell into conversation with a Palestinian couple who run a store near the grand Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City.

Emad and Nahla Abu Khadije told us they ride the train from East to West Jerusalem twice a week. They go to an Israeli hospital for Emad's cancer treatment and told us they feel safe riding the train.

But they find Jerusalem rather tense. As the couple reached their stop, Emad and Nahla told us they feel they're often looked upon as terrorists.

"We born here, we hope to die here. It's our land," Emad said.

Before 1948, before the creation of Israel, Jews and Arabs lived together he tells us.

"Now," he said, "I'm not sure they want to."

We let him get on to his cancer treatment, and he urged us to visit his store.

"I wait for you, inshallah, to come," he said.

The train line continues westward across the rest of Jerusalem to the Holocaust museum, its final stop.

A symbol of the many tragic stories that come together in this city. From East to West Jerusalem, the light rail brings Israelis and Palestinians elbow to elbow, whether they like it or not.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story begins on a platform, waiting for a train. It was a weekday morning in Jerusalem. The sun was wiping out the shade. We had arranged to join an ordinary Israeli on his far from ordinary commute.

David, hello.

DAVID FELBER: Hi.

INSKEEP: Steve.

David needed a moment to catch his breath, having run down the street.

FELBER: We missed the train of eight o'clock, so I didn't want to miss this one, as well.

INSKEEP: The 8:05 train would travel from east to west Jerusalem, which gets to the point of our story because we've been reporting on the struggle for Mideast land. Israel's light rail system connects two halves of a divided city. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War against Arab nations almost half a century ago. The United Nations Security Council said Israel should withdraw as part of a peace deal. Peace didn't come. Israel annexed heavily Palestinian East Jerusalem, declaring it part of Israel. It built thousands of new homes where Israeli Jews, including David Felber, moved in.

FELBER: We're in the biggest neighborhood of Jerusalem. Around 50,000 people live here. It's a part of Jerusalem that wasn't part of the city before the '67 war.

INSKEEP: Israelis built this new Jewish area in the 1980s, and then, in recent years, they built the light rail line. It runs through these Jewish neighborhood streets, into Palestinian zones and onward to old Israeli neighborhoods in West Jerusalem. Along the way, it's become a target of violence.

OK, here comes the train now.

The cars came down the tracks - sleek, blue and silver, sliding beneath overhead electric wires.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

INSKEEP: We stepped on board to glimpse how the battle for land touches so much, including David Felber's commute. Felber was among scores of people who ducked in and out of this train car. He is a third-generation Israeli. He says his grandparents came here before there was an Israel. Today, he has a job in the Ministry of Education, which is where the train was taking him as we stood holding the handrail.

FELBER: Actually, although I use it very frequent, I was one of the big complainers against the train.

INSKEEP: He opposed the project for many reasons, including its root.

FELBER: We are just now entering the Arab neighborhoods - the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: He wished the train would've bypassed those Palestinian zones.

FELBER: But now we're entering the Palestine neighborhoods. You can see the windows here, broken from stones that were thrown on the train. And this is - shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.

INSKEEP: Felber was pointing at cracked windows of our train car. The cracks were covered by clear plastic stickers promising the windows would be repaired as soon as possible.

FELBER: It doesn't say what's the reason, but it's not birds that they broke the windows.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No?

FELBER: No, and neither Israelis who did it.

INSKEEP: Palestinians have thrown stones at mass transit for decades as they protest Israeli rule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: This is not the image Jerusalem transit officials would've liked to promote. Our producer, Emily Ochsenschlager, talked with a transit spokesman who said the train brings people together. He called light rail passengers a mosaic of Jews and Arabs, men and women, tourists and more.

But the rail line was also divisive from the start of construction. Israel was building a train into occupied territory, serving Jewish settlements that the UN had called illegal. A pro-Palestinian group sued the French train contractors, claiming the project was aiding in a war crime - the taking of territory. The suit was dismissed, but trouble continued, as we saw while riding with David Felber.

FELBER: Just now, if you look outside - look, it's burnt - all burnt, all ruined.

INSKEEP: The train was rolling up to a platform in the middle of a Palestinian street.

FELBER: It was all burnt by Palestinians who were - they were angry. It doesn't matter for what, but they always find a reason.

INSKEEP: Later, we returned to that train platform to learn about the reason.

Last year, this stop on the light rail line became tangled in the broader story of the Middle East conflict. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed by Palestinians. And in apparent retaliation, a Palestinian teenager sitting very near the stop - a few yards from where I'm standing now - was kidnapped by Jewish extremists and burned alive.

In retaliation for that, Palestinians in this mostly Palestinian neighborhood attacked this light rail station. And what I'm looking at here is the broken bits of metal that's all that's left of a ticket stand here on the platform.

In this neighborhood, we met a cousin of the Palestinian youth who was killed near the train. The man's name is Walid Abu Khdeir, and he led us down a narrow street and up the stairs to his apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING AND DOOR CREAKING)

INSKEEP: You can see the train right out your window, I see here.

WALID ABU KHDEIR: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "We can see and hear it day and night," said Walid. For Walid, his cousin's death was just part of a lifetime of conflict. He said, his family has long resisted Israeli rule. Walid, himself, said he was imprisoned years ago for violent acts he committed on the streets.

When your cousin was killed, do you know why it was that people then targeted the light rail?

KHDEIR: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "After that barbaric act," Walid said, "people took out their anger on any Israeli project nearby." Though the train is conveniently outside his door, he said he rarely rides it and tells his kids to stay off it, too. In any case, the government has yet to replace the ruined kiosk on the platform, meaning nobody at that station can buy a ticket.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

INSKEEP: From Walid's window, we saw the way the train passes a local mosque and continues on toward Jewish West Jerusalem. Trains roll by every few minutes. And when we were on board, we did to see Palestinian as well as Jewish riders. We saw men wearing Jewish yarmulkes on their heads near women wearing Muslim headscarves. We fell into conversation with a Palestinian couple. They run a store near the great Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's old city. Emad and Nahla Abu Khadije told us they ride the train from East to West Jerusalem twice a week. They go to an Israeli hospital for Emad's cancer treatment.

What is the experience like? Do you like riding this train?

NAHLA ABU KHADIJE: Yeah. It's very safe to go on this train.

INSKEEP: The train is safe, they say, but they find Jerusalem rather tense. And as the couple reached their stop, Emad and Nahla told us they feel they're often looked upon as terrorists.

ABU KHADIJE: We born here. Why we want to go? We hope to die here. It's our land.

INSKEEP: Before 1948, he said, before the creation of Israel, Jews and Arabs lived together. "Now," he said, "I'm not sure they want to." We let him get on to his cancer treatment, and he urged us to visit his store.

ABU KHADIJE: I wait for you. I wait for you, inshallah, to come.

INSKEEP: "I'll wait for you," he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

INSKEEP: And of the train line continues westward across the rest of Jerusalem, finally ending here, overlooking a gorgeous green mountain valley. We're just a short walk from Israel's Holocaust Museum. That's where the train stops - a symbol of the many tragic stories that come together in the city. From East to West Jerusalem, the light rail brings Israelis and Palestinians elbow to elbow, whether they like it or not. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.