Israel Wants to Expropriate Land in the North for the ‘Afula-Jenin Railroad’

The plan to take some 1,700 dunams (about 420 acres) was discussed on Tuesday, but the Palestinian Authority has no intention of paving a railroad track beyond the Green Line

The District Planning and Building Committee in the Northern District discussed on Tuesday the opposition to a plan to revive the railway that operated in the past between Afula and Jenin. The new plan includes a public transportation station, a large cargo terminal and an updated border crossing, which would be built on about 1,700 dunams north of the Green Line, adjacent to the Arab village of Mukeibleh in the Gilboa Regional Council – most of the land is owned by the villagers.

Israel Railways and the Interior Ministry Planning Administration claim that this is an infrastructure “of strategic importance to the future and development of the region,” which in the future will enable “the transport of baggage from Haifa and Afula to an employment zone that is now being built north of Jenin.” But PA planning contains no mention of a railroad that will connect the city to Israeli territory via Mukeibleh.

Village residents say that “they are planning to expropriate more than half the land in the village in favor of a train that won’t go anywhere.” Taisir al-Qasem, one of the villagers, added that the purpose is to expel the residents of Mukeibleh. He said that “as a law-abiding citizen I feel despair. The government is trampling us roughly and cruelly and we’re fighting for our home. We won’t let this project be built, for us this is a fight for survival. This battle isn’t over a piece of land, but over the future of our children and of the community.”

The railway between Afula and Jenin was built in 1912, in a cooperative project of Turkey and Germany. Under discussion is a first section, part of the Samaria Railway, which continued to Nablus and Tul Karm and was supposed to end in Jerusalem, but was not completed. The railway operated, with decreasing frequency, until the end of World War II. Over the years the tracks were dismantled and other buildings were constructed in their place. However, remains of several of the stations can still be found in the area. The renewed planning of the railway has been going on for many years, and according to the Interior Ministry’s planning administration, at an investment of millions of shekels.

According to the written explanation accompanying the plan, the new line is designed to connect a cargo terminal to be built next to Mukeibleh, continue “along the historical route of the Turkish railway,” and connect to the Ha’emek (Valley) Railway, about two kilometers from Afula. The connection will enable traffic in an easterly direction to Beit She’an, “and from there to Jordan in a future connection,” as well as to the Haifa Port in the west.

According to the explanation, the planning is based on “the policy of the Transportation Ministry, which wants to strengthen the railway connection between the PA, Jordan and the Haifa Port. Accordingly, the planning of the railway is coordinated with the planning of an industrial zone which is being built by an international initiative in the jurisdiction of the PA.”

This is the industrial zone north of Jenin, which has been funded and developed in recent years in cooperation with Turkey and Germany. Alongside the cargo terminal a passenger station will be built in Mukeibleh and an area will be saved for moving the Gilboa (Jalama) land border crossing, which leads to the PA areas.

The complex in Mukeibleh is designed to connect to the train that leaves from Jenin, according to a (partial) regional master plan for railroads in Judea and Samaria, which the Civil Administration deposited 12 years ago, but since then it has not advanced it. “The plan has no validity, not legal and not planning,” wrote the residents of the village in their objection submitted by the Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and Bimkom nonprofit organizations. “The plan has not even been deposited for objections, because the coordination that was set as a condition have not been completed,” referring to with the PA and others. The last hearing on the plan was in July 2013, and the objection filed by the residents noted that “according to all logical criteria, this document must be viewed as a draft that has been filed away and nothing more … [the plan] must not be given any weight whatsoever or to plan according to it.”

A three-sided lack of coordination

The Palestinian planning system does propose to connect between the train form Jenin and the Valley Train – but in a different place, much farther from where Israel wants to connect. “Unilateral advancement of the Israeli plan, without coordination with the PA and in opposition to what it planned, could well rise to the level of a violation of international law,” stated the objection. “Because a doubt has arisen as to whether the plan serves the good of the local population as required from the actions of the occupying force, or maybe it serves other purposes.” According to the coalition agreement between Likud and the Religious Zionism party, Religious Zionism will receive “full responsibility for the areas of the activity” of the Civil Administration.

Moreover, the route of the new train conflicts with other plans that have already been approved, in which next to the Palestinian industrial area will be built a power plant and gas plant that will be fed by a pipeline that will come from inside Israel. “The lack of coordination between the three planning systems working in the region – the Israeli inside of the State of Israel, the Civil Administration in Area C of the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority – has led to a situation in which the infrastructures block one another. This means the connection of the proposed railway with the master plan for Judea and Samaria is not possible,” states the residents’ objection.

Mukeibleh has about 4,300 residents. The plan would expropriate about 55 percent of the land belonging to them for the train station, cargo terminal and future border crossing. In a hearing in 2020, the representative of the Defense Ministry admitted that it was not clear if and when the border crossing would move to the new area – in part because no agreement exists with the PA on the matter.

Taisir al-Qasem said Mukeibleh has no reserves of land and the plan turns the village into a community under siege. “They have turned us into a ghetto, a refugee camp. On the east side, north and south we are blocked for expansion, and now only the west side is left for us. This is a calculated policy of the government.” As a result of the planned expropriation of the village’s land, it is possible that internal land disputes could occur – which could even spill over into violence, he added.

Al-Qasem, a father of four, said the village has a severe housing shortage, young people do not stay and build homes there, so some of them leave to find housing in other towns. “The plan will prevent the construction of even one meter in the future. It seems that those who support this planning want to cause Mukeibleh to deteriorate into the realms of crime and violence. And then they will start to talk about the violence in the Arab community – even though they are the ones who are generating it. I still want to believe that it is really a national project, and I don’t oppose it. But you need to weigh the matters with proportionality. You cannot trample an entire community where 5,000 people live, and for them to pay the entire price for the project.”

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli also opposes the plan. She asked a week ago to postpone the hearing, “until the completion of the examination different alternatives in depth.” Michaeli also wrote: “The residents of the community are afraid, with justification, that the leading alternative today will dramatically harm their future. When planning the infrastructure, one must ensure the harm to citizens, women and men, is as small as possible, certainly when it comes to the weakest groups.”

The regional committee rejected Michaeli’s request and insisted on advancing the plan. “The importance of the exact placement of the track also stems from the importance of the connecting of the infrastructure expected to be built on the other side of the border crossing,” explains the rejection. In another letter, Michaeli wrote that the committee’s response “raises a fear that an appropriate weight was not given to the objections and the examination of more comprehensive solutions.” The head of the Gilboa Regional Council, Oved Nur, joined in the objection too. He has warned in the past of “heavy-handed damage” to Mukeibleh.

Myssana Morany, a lawyer with Adalah, said the new route “was presented to the planning authorities as serving the purpose of moving goods, as part of the fulfillment of the utopian vision of a new Middle East. But it will be unable to connect to any railway plan in the West Bank – not the one that the Civil Administration conducted on its own and not the official one of the Palestinian Authority.”

Cesar Yeudkin of Bimkom said the proposed plan “does not relate to the reality on the ground, and will harm the residents of Mukeibleh. We hope that the planning institutions will come to their senses and cancel the proposed route in favor of a more balanced alternative.” Bimkom said the committee will release its decision in the next few days.

The Planning Administration said: “This is a pan in the objections stage, and we cannot comment.”