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Palestine urges withdrawal of rail contract

Abbas Al Lawati | Gulf News

31 May 2009

Dubai: Palestinian officials have intensified diplomatic efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to withdraw a multibillion dollar rail contract awarded to a firm alleged to be complicit in Israel’s expansion in Occupied East Jerusalem, Gulf News has learnt.

Palestinian National Authority officials have said that they are in talks with the Saudis to find ways to block the Occupied Jerusalem light rail project.

The light rail project will link Occupied West Jerusalem to Occupied East Jerusalem and Jewish colonies in the Occupied West Bank when completed.

It has been described by Israeli leaders as the fulfillment of the Zionist dream and will be partly built by the French firm Alstom.

Alstom is part of a consortium awarded a $1.8 billion (Dh6.6 billion) civil works contract in March for the Makkah-Madinah railway, the Haramain Express.

“Back-channel talks with the Saudis are ongoing.” said a high ranking official at the Palestinian foreign ministry, speaking to Gulf News on condition of anonymity. He refused to divulge further details.

However, while Palestinian officials fear that Alstom’s Makkah contract will undermine their efforts to block the Occupied Jerusalem tramway, they also see it as an opportunity to put pressure on the company through Saudi Arabia.

They say that although the Occupied Jerusalem project is expected to be completed next year, Saudi Arabia could use its influence to derail its further expansion as well as its 30-year maintenance plan.

Palestinian efforts to fight the project started following a 2006 Arab League ministerial decision in Khartoum calling on states and international organisations to “stop the Occupied Jerusalem tram project and refrain from assisting in its execution”.

Since 2007 the Palestinian foreign ministry has been pressing Arab states to use their political and economic weight to pressure France into taking action against the companies that are involved in the Occupied Jerusalem project, but apparently has not had much success.

The foreign ministry requested Saudi Arabia to intervene in the matter in a letter dated December 2007.

“We received a reply from the ministry in early 2008 stating that Saudi officials intend to speak to the French on the matter,” said the Palestinian official.

Since the letter the Saudi government has awarded two contracts to Alstom. The company won a $2.6 billion contract to build a power plant in the kingdom last year.

This was followed by the Haramain Express contract earlier this year by the Saudi Railway Organisation (SRO).

The consortium is now bidding for two more contracts to supply the trains and maintain the stations. The SRO did not respond to Gulf News’ questions.

Alstom, Alstom Transport and Veolia are also facing a lawsuit in France for their involvement in the Occupied Jerusalem project, brought by French advocacy group Association France-Palestine Solidarit√©, which is working closely with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) representative office in Paris.

Ambassador Hind Khoury, PLO representative and former minister of Occupied Jerusalem affairs, called the case a ‘breakthrough’. She said she often reminded Arab counterparts of their obligations as per the Arab League decision.

“I have a new mandate from the [Palestinian National Authority] president [Mahmoud Abbas] to pursue this case,” she said.

In an effort to avoid embarrassment, the French government reportedly distanced itself from the project when pressed by the Palestinian National Authority to intervene in 2005. It said it had nothing to do with projects private companies were involved in.

However, Alain Gresh, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, said that the Occupied Jerusalem contract was signed in the office of the then French ambassador to Israel, Gerard Araud. “They can’t ignore that,” he said.

Such contracts are often politicised, with high level delegations often including heads of governments, being sent to the region to lobby on behalf of the bidding companies.

Palestinian officials have said that their discussions with Saudi Arabia will be based on the 2006 Arab League decision.

Eric Lenoir, communications manager at Alstom Transport said Gulf officials had not cited the Occupied Jerusalem project as a concern.

“Our job is to be compliant with specifications defined by local railway authorities. We don’t make politics,” he added.

Lenoir said that the Gulf region was an attractive market for Alstom due to congestion problems in its cities and a realisation by its governments that rail transport was a viable solution as the countries develop.

The company is currently eyeing projects in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the planned GCC railway.

The credible case against Alstom

Dubai: Critics of French-based Alstom have accused it of violating international law for what they see as the company’s complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

The company faces a lawsuit in France brought by French advocacy group Association France-Palestine Solidarité and the Palestine Liberation Organisation for its involvement in the Occupied Jerusalem light rail project which connects Occupied West Jerusalem to Occupied East Jerusalem and Jewish colonies in the West Bank.

Alstom and Veolia have repeatedly come under fire by advocacy groups in Europe for the project.

The Dutch ASN Bank decided in 2006 to exclude Veolia from its investment portfolios, and the Swedish national pension fund AP7 has blacklisted Alstom from its $15 billion (Dh55 billion) portfolio, according to media reports.

While the lawyers for the parties taking Alstom to court have avoided speaking to the media, Dubai based international humanitarian law expert Urs Stirnimann assumed that the Geneva Conventions are the principle basis in taking the company to court in France.

He said Israel’s practice of settling its population on occupied territory is widely considered to be a violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which, in accordance with article 147 is a grave violation of international humanitarian law.

“In other words, [it is] a war crime. Article 146 clearly stipulates that it is the responsibility of each country to act against grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions,” he said.

Alain Gresh, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, said that while it is unlikely that the French court would force the two companies to withdraw from the project, it sets a precedent which will prevent firms from operating in occupied territories for fear of a backlash. Alstom and Veolia have won contracts worth billions in all six Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Adri Nieuwhof, a human rights advocate who has written extensively about the Occupied Jerusalem tramway, says that the project is part of an Israeli “master plan” for Occupied Jerusalem, which includes the confiscation of privately owned Palestinian land.

She said the tramway would consolidate Israel’s hold on occupied Palestinian territory.

“For colonists living in the Occupied West Bank, travel to Occupied Jerusalem can become faster and more efficient with the light rail, so the colonies can become more attractive for colonists to live in, besides being cheap.”