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Veolia likely to abandon rail project

Abbas Al Lawati | Gulf News

9 June 2009

Dubai: One of the two transport companies facing a lawsuit in France for their involvement in a controversial Israeli rail project in occupied East Jerusalem has reportedly planned to withdraw from the project.

French company Veolia Transport is considering the sale of its five per cent stake in the Citypass consortium which is tasked with building the occupied Jerusalem rail link, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported. The other French company involved in the project is Alstom Transport.

The paper cited observers attributing the move to pressure on the company in Europe and the loss of potential revenue due to its involvement in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

When completed, the Jerusalem Light Rail is expected to link occupied Jerusalem to Jewish colonies in the occupied West Bank that are considered illegal under international law.

A spokesperson from Veolia said the company could not confirm or deny the reports in Haaretz.

Ambassador Hind Khoury, former Palestinian minister of Jerusalem affairs and representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Paris, whose office was involved in taking Veolia and Alstom to court with advocacy group Association France-Palestine Solidarité, welcomed the move but said it was premature to call it a victory.

“This is certainly a positive development and a success, but we can’t declare victory while the infrastructure of this tramway sits on occupied Palestinian land,” she said.

Hind attributed the reported withdrawal to “a change in the international political climate” led by a new US administration “that respects international law”.

She said that it was time to put pressure on Alstom to abandon the project “because it plays a bigger role in the tramway”.

Veolia and Alstom had been under mounting pressure by advocacy groups to abandon the project in occupied Jerusalem. European companies have in the recent past refrained from investing in or giving contracts to both companies.

Omar Barghouthi, founding member of the Palestinian civil society Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, said the movement’s pressure in the Derail Veolia and Alstom campaign “played a key role in denying Veolia major contracts, totalling about $7 billion [Dh25.6 billion], in Sweden, Britain and France”.

“Alstom will feel lonely now as the remaining French company that is still complicit in the colonising project of the Jerusalem Light Rail. But they will not withdraw unless, like Veolia, they are made to pay a heavy price that their shareholders cannot swallow,” he added.

Alstom spokesperson Eric Lenoir said the company was not thinking about withdrawing from Jerusalem Light Rail project. He added that the controversy over the project had never been brought up in any tenders Alstom Transport has been involved in, a number of which are in Gulf states.

When contacted by Gulf News, Sylvan Hijazi, Alstom’s president in the Gulf, said he could not comment.

Alain Gresh, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, said that Alstom is now going to be “exposed” as pressure for the project was previously concentrated on Veolia.

He said, however, that companies withdrawing from the project are unlikely to publicly admit to giving into pressure.

“This decision can boost the BDS movement in France and Europe,” he said.

The Palestinian National Authority has since 2005 been trying to push France to intervene in order to stop the two companies’ involvement in the project, and has more recently been asking Arab states to get involved.

Gulf News reported earlier that the Palestinian foreign ministry was in talks with Saudi Arabia to withdraw a $1.8 billion civil works contract awarded to Alstom for the Haramain Express railway linking Makkah and Madinah.

Barghouthi said his movement hopes that states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have granted Alstom contracts, will take action against it.