A plan for a light rail that would connect Arab towns in the Galilee to Acre and Carmiel was scrapped by the transportation minister and the minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee, Haaretz has learned.
Instead, the ministers are seeing an ordinary train line operated by Israel Railways, which would not make a single stop in important Arab areas.
The railway plan is backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who intends to bring it to a cabinet vote over the next few weeks.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz enthusiastically supports the light rail project.
According to Finance Ministry sources, Steinitz has said in internal discussions that an ordinary railway would do little to resolve the lack of public transportation in the north. Steinitz pointed out that although both projects will cost an estimated NIS 3.5 billion, a light rail would serve three times as many passengers.
Local council heads in the north have long been calling for a railway to connect towns to larger cities, which would allow new people to enter the labor force. The ministers' agreement to promote the railway was welcomed by Jewish local councils.
However, this would come at the expense of a plan drafted by Haifa municipal company Yafe Nof, at the request of the Transportation Ministry. The Yafe Nof plan would use the railway budget to set up a network of light rails that would serve a considerably larger proportion of the Galilee population. The proposed network would have 85 stops, and would encompass Shfaram, Iblin, Tamra, Nazareth, Majdal Krum and others.
Supporters of the plan point out that it would not necessitate confiscation of Arab lands, as the light rail would run along Highway 85. In contrast, building a full railway would entail confiscating 500 acres of land owned by Arab towns along the Acre-Carmiel road. It would also involve digging a five-kilometer tunnel, setting up three new interchanges and finding a way to avoid damage to ancient graves in the area - which alone could hold the project up for several years.
A source in the planning authorities said the decision was "absurd."
"You'll be confiscating all these lands from Arab villages to build the track, but the people in those villages won't be able to use the train because no stops are even planned there," he said.
The railway is supported by Carmiel mayor Adi Eldar, who said it would enable connecting to Kiryat Shmona and the northernmost panhandle of the Galilee in the future.
"If they set up a light rail instead, the people of Kiryat Shmona will be waiting for the train for another 100 years," he said. "Only a train can link Carmiel to the center of the country in an hour and 15 minutes. Israel Railway already planned the line and I support the ministers' decision," he said.
When asked why the railway plan did not take into account Arab residents, the mayor said, "A light rail would have to stop at dozens of stations, including Tamra, Shfaram and Iblin. This would only prolong the journey for Carmiel residents. If they want train service over there, they can set up their own separate light rail network."
Other sources confirmed that the train would be faster than a light rail. Light rails can travel at up to 90 kilometers per hour, they said, while trains can go up to 120 kilometers per hour.
"But apart from speed, the train really doesn't have any advantages over the light rail. They even cost the same," one of the sources said.
Yafe Nof said in response that modern light rails can travel at speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour.
Sources in the office of the minister for the Negev and Galilee, Silvan Shalom, said that he had long opposed the light rail plan, as he thought it was better to build a track than can link up with Kiryat Shmona.
The media advisor for Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told Haaretz that "a light rail has more stops, which slows it down and makes it less attractive for the residents of the North. Maybe in the future the Arab residents will get "shuttles" to the stations along Highway 85."
Notably absent from the decision-making process were heads of Arab towns and villages.
"Nobody talked to me or to other Arab council heads about it," said Muhammad Mana, head of the Majdal Krum local council. He estimates unemployment is 30 percent in his district. "All I know is that they'll be taking our lands without considering our needs."