For its proponents, the rail system is a long-awaited effort to modernize one of the world's oldest cities. Planners seek to reduce congestion on its overwhelmed roads and breathe new life into a downtown that never fully recovered from a spate of suicide bombings a decade ago that scared away merchants and shoppers.
Crews have been putting the finishing touches on the system, as futuristic silver electric cars glide silently past Jerusalem's old stone buildings and open air market stalls on test runs. Jerusalem's multicultural pedestrians – from ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in traditional coats to veiled Muslim women – often stop to watch.
"Despite all the problems we have, this will save Jerusalem," said Shmuel Elgrabli, spokesman for the light rail's government-managed development team.
But nothing is so simple in the holy city.
In a place where everything is shaped by political overtones, Palestinians accuse Israel of using the project to solidify its hold on the disputed eastern sector of the city.
Haredi pedestrians stop to watch (Photo: Guy Assayag)
The route links Israeli neighborhoods in Jerusalem with Pisgat Zeev, the largest Jewish enclave in east Jerusalem, the part of the city Palestinians want as a capital of a future state.
"This is a major, major obstacle ... to a genuine and real possibility of reaching a political settlement," said Palestinian spokesman Husam Zomlot. "There can be no progress based on land theft and confiscation of property to connect illegal colonies on occupied territories."
Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in 1967, opposes a division of the city.
If the city is ever divided – a big if, but probably a condition for peace – the tram could cross the border several times along its way.
And if there is no peace, many fear the tram will eventually be an easy target for terrorist attacks – even more vulnerable than the buses that used to be targeted regularly along the same path by suicide bombers.
Before the tracks were laid, builders encountered a religious dilemma: Two Jewish burial plots, believed to date back 2,000 years, were discovered along the tram route. Tampering with graves at construction sites often ignites the fury of ultra-Orthodox Jews, so the light rail's developers consulted Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish organization that cares for old graves.
Rabbi David Shmidel of the organization said he was concerned that descendants from the ancient Jewish priestly class – typically identified by the last name Cohen – would not be able to ride the tram because of a biblical prohibition against contact with graves.
So his group built an above-ground structure around one burial cave, complete with strategically placed concrete slabs and large metal air pipes on both sides. According to his interpretation of Jewish law, the structure would direct the graves' impurity away from passengers. It held up the project for nearly half a year, but light rail developers agreed to reroute the tracks around the structure.
Already 2 years overdue
The project was also dogged by archaeologists. Under Israeli law, all building projects must be preceded by a search for ancient ruins.
Archaeologists unearthed gold coins, pottery shards and ancient bathhouses along the planned route, in "one of the most fascinating excavations in the land of Israel of this generation," said Israel Antiquities Authority official Yuval Baruch.
They excavated sites spanning Jerusalem's long history, including a previously unknown suburb dating to the time of Jesus, a 6th-century monastery containing Armenian inscriptions and a 19th-century French monastery built atop a Crusader-era site.
The sites won't be on exhibit for visitors. They'll be underneath their feet, covered in a thick concrete layer to protect the finds from the tram overhead. Baruch said excavators rescued the valuable objects, but kept the rest underground to be preserved for future generations of archaeologists.
With much of the controversy in the past, the downtown section is slated, by sometime in April, to welcome its first passengers – for the symbolic price of NIS 1 or 2 (about 30 to 60 cents). Come autumn, the entire 14-km (9 mile) route is to be opened, completing a decade-long enterprise that's already two years overdue.
The train will serve some of the city's most populated and disparate areas, passing through Palestinian and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and providing a less-polluting alternative for those burgeoning populations. The $1.4 billion project also upgraded rusty infrastructure, created bicycle lanes, added speedy bus lines with preference at traffic lights, and transformed Jerusalem's clogged downtown artery into a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard with the light rail running through it.
"I think it's terrific," said Moshe Safdie, an internationally renowned Israeli architect whose designs dot Jerusalem's landscape. He applauded the route of the train, which "suggests that the city will continue to live as an undivided city...serving the entire population of the city."
That's exactly what Palestinian officials fear. The route links Israeli neighborhoods in Jerusalem with Pisgat Zeev, the largest Jewish enclave in east Jerusalem, the part of the city Palestinians want as a capital of a future state.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank, in the 1967 Mideast war. It later annexed east Jerusalem – a move that has never been internationally recognized – and considers the entire city its eternal capital.
The Palestinians say that a train crisscrossing through occupied territory will only deepen Israel's hold on east Jerusalem and make it even more difficult to share control of the city under a future peace agreement.
'Why can't tracks stretch to Ramallah?'
The Palestine Liberation Organization asked a French court last year to order French multinational transportation companies Veolia and Alstom to bow out of the project. Veolia later sold its stake in the project to Israeli bus company Dan, citing financial reasons. Dan sued, accusing it of bowing to pro-Palestinian pressure. An Alstom spokesman defended its role in the project as replacing existing bus lines, not introducing new realities on the ground.
Politics was just one of the issues dogging the project since it was approved in 2002. Engineering glitches resulted in numerous delays, snagging traffic throughout the city for years. Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, even threatened to cancel the entire project after he took office in 2008. With the project well-advanced by that time, he backtracked after learning how much that would cost.
Critics say when the tram starts running, more disruptions are inevitable.
"This train was planned as if this is one normal city. This is not one normal city," said Eran Feitelson, geography professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Feitelson said bomb scares, spontaneous political demonstrations and motorcades of visiting heads of state – all common in Jerusalem – could disrupt the route and clog up downtown.
After last decade's spate of bus bombings, some Jerusalem residents worry the tram could be an easy target.
Project spokesman Elgrabli said a team of plainclothes and uniformed guards will patrol tram stops to prevent attacks. He said operators are checking that new smartphone applications for passengers to track tram arrival, being developed by Israeli startups, won't aid attackers.
He insisted the tram will be safe because it services both Arabs and Jews – and said it could even promote peace between them.
"Why can't (the tracks) one day stretch to Ramallah (in the West Bank)?" Elgrabli asked. "We need imagination to learn how to live together."
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