Settler rail line to Israel latest land grab, Palestinians say
Residents in Salfit district expect 300 hectares of land to be confiscated for an Israeli settler railway.
Salfit, occupied West Bank – Israel’s development plans are booming in the Salfit district.
Israeli construction teams are hard at work as cranes lift and lower building materials on the hilltops, expanding Ariel University – the first settler university established in the occupied West Bank – and the Ariel West industrial zone.
The seemingly untouched hills of olive trees create a picturesque view for the some 65,000 settlers residing in 24 illegal Israeli settlements scattered across the district.
This reality, however, has only been made possible through the relentless expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, as each Israeli development begets Palestinian loss, according to locals.
Most recently, Israel announced plans to construct the first train line for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, connecting the Ariel settlement – one of Israel’s largest settlements with a population close to 19,000 – to cities and towns inside Israel.
The project is expected to be completed by 2025 and cost up to $1.16bn.
“This railway will confiscate more land from us and devastate more families,” Abed al-Karim Zubeidi, the mayor of Salfit, told Al Jazeera. “This means more environmental and economic destruction.
“But this is occupation. Israel uses our land to build for its people and we are pushed to the side and left with nothing.”
Palestinians left guessing
The train line, spearheaded by Israel’s Minister of Transportation Israel Katz, will run along Route 5, an Israeli road that cuts across Salfit from the Zaatara (Tapuah) junction – a site of routine tensions among Israeli settlers and Palestinians – and connects the Ariel settlement to Israeli towns beyond the 1967 Green Line.
The highway already splits Salfit in two, severing Palestinian communities from one another.
While the rail line is still in its planning stages, the three proposed options for its route would all run from the Ariel settlement, including a direct stop at the university, continue through Israel’s Barkan industrial zone, and west towards the Green Line in the direction of Tel Aviv, according to an Israeli Ministry of Transportation press release.
Jamal al-Ahmad, head of the land confiscation council in Salfit, said residents are expecting about 300 hectares to be confiscated from residents for the construction of the railway.
Locals, meanwhile, are left in the dark regarding whose lands will be targeted.
Like other Israeli development plans in Salfit that have directly affected the lives of Palestinians, residents learned of the planned railway only when it was announced in Israeli newspapers.
“We have never received any official notices from Israel when our lands have been confiscated,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera. “We either wake up and find that Israel will no longer allow us to access our lands, or we read about it in Israeli media.”
Israel’s Ministry of Transportation could not confirm for Al Jazeera to what extent Palestinians in the occupied West Bank would have access to the train line.
However, owing to the fact that Palestinians are not permitted to enter Israeli settlements without special permits, if they are allowed to use the train, their access would likely be severely restricted.
“This railway will further entrench apartheid in Salfit,” Ahmad said. “The more Israel develops its settlements, the more our movement and rights are restricted.”
Decades of confiscation
Thousands of hectares of land have been confiscated from Salfit residents over the last several decades owing to the construction of Israeli settlements, industrial zones, roads and the separation wall.
The rolling green hills that serve as serene landscapes for settlers on the hilltops are a source of pain and devastation for Palestinians in the area.
An electric fence, equipped with lines of coiled barbed wire, snakes across the northern and western parts of Salfit. Israeli security forces continuously drive back and forth, patrolling the area.
Israelis have consumed about 600 hectares of land belonging to Salfit residents since 2004, when the fence, part of Israel’s separation wall, was built. The wall is only 30 percent complete in Salfit, according to Ahmad.
Ahmad al-Shuqair, 78, is a resident of al-Zawiya village in Salfit. All of his land, where his family planted more than 1,000 olive trees over several generations, was confiscated when Israel built the electric separation fence.
“I woke up one morning and found that everything I owned was gone,” Shuqair said. His almost 80-hectare plot of land was exactly bordering the Green Line.
Now Shuqair expects that life will only get worse for residents in his village.
Al-Zawiya is situated in between Tel Aviv, less than 30km west of the village, and Route 5. The train line is expected to cut through al-Zawiya, along with several other Palestinian villages.
Palestinians in Salfit fear the forthcoming settler train will be the first stage of a larger Israeli railway project in the occupied West Bank.
For the past six years, Katz has promoted a plan to construct a 475-km railway in the occupied West Bank, which would create a network of 11 rail lines connecting major Israeli settlements to one another and to Israeli towns across the border.
“What do they [settlers] need a train line for?” Shuqair said. “Israel has already taken our lands to build roads for them. All of them have cars. This railway is just an excuse to steal more of our lands.”
‘Nothing we can do’
Even on the Palestinian side of the separation fence, residents in Salfit are restricted from using the majority of their lands.
According to Ahmad, more than 70 percent of Salfit’s lands are designated as Area C – the more than 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control. Israel restricts Palestinians from developing these areas.
A tall Israeli watchtower extends out from the olive groves and overlooks the lands, with Israeli soldiers constantly surveilling the area with large telescopes.
Zubeidi told Al Jazeera the municipality has spearheaded attempts to “sneak” onto lands in Area C and develop small projects.
The municipality plans to construct a sports field and playground in Area C, as children have no space to play in Salfit owing to the lack of land available to Palestinians.
“We play a cat and mouse game with the Israeli soldiers,” Zubeidi explained. “When they see us from the tower, they will come down and force us to stop working. So we concede and hide our equipment nearby. Once they leave, we return once again and continue working.”
It has taken the municipality more than three years to level the land the Palestinians hope to develop.
Meanwhile, Israeli settlements continue to grow in Salfit, now outnumbering the Palestinian communities, while the settler population almost equals the Palestinian population, estimated to be about 75,000.
In the process, Palestinians in Salfit have steadily lost hope for the future.
“When they built this wall and took all my lands, there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” Shuqair told Al Jazeera. “This train line will be the same. Israel will construct it and we will be forced to stand by and watch.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop them.”