The Transportation Ministry canceled a tour for foreign diplomats of tunnels for the fast Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway line under construction. Senior Israeli officials and European diplomats said the tour was scrapped after European Union ambassadors decided not to attend, on the grounds that one of the tunnels traverses the West Bank, considered occupied territory by the international community.
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Senior Israeli officials who were speaking on condition of anonymity said the Transportation Ministry decided a few weeks ago to show foreign diplomats one of the country's largest infrastructure projects, with the involvement of major international firms. At the Transportation Ministry’s request, the Foreign Ministry issued invitations to all ambassadors serving in Israel. The tour was scheduled for a date in early June.
The ministries did not anticipate problems, but as it turned out, the tour had become controversial. A senior Israeli official said one EU ambassador after another informed the Foreign Ministry that they would not attend. Ministry officials soon discovered that the head of the EU delegation to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, had urged the ambassadors not to participate because a portion of the route passes through Area C of the West Bank, territory that according to the Oslo Accords is under Israeli civil as well as military control.
A senior European diplomat who asked not to be identified supplied a slightly different account, saying that after the invitations were received, several of the ambassadors raised the issue in Faaborg-Andersen’s weekly meeting with the 28 EU ambassadors to Israel.
The diplomat said Faaborg-Andersen asked which of the ambassadors planned to join the tour, noting that part of the railway line was on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border and therefore presented a problem over which a joint decision should be made. Some ambassadors said they did not plan to attend due to scheduling conflicts. A number said they did not want to attend for political reasons while others said they would agree to send their economic attaches, so as not to give the tour a diplomatic character. After a brief discussion, it was decided that the consensus was that none of the ambassadors would participate, the European diplomatic source said.
It was after that meeting that the various ambassadors informed the Foreign Ministry that they would not be attending. According to a senior Israeli official, some said explicitly that they would not participate because a portion of the rail line runs through the West Bank.
After reviewing the situation, the foreign and transportation ministries concluded that the EU ambassadors’ decision might cause other ambassadors to take similar action, turning the tour into a highly embarrassing diplomatic incident. It was ultimately decided to defer the tour to a later date and to inform the foreign ambassadors of the change.
The two ministries were surprised by the European ambassadors’ decision, viewing it as a boycott of sorts that could render the fast train project a controversial subject in the international community. A senior European diplomat said, however, that the decision not to participate was specifically related to the tour and there was no intention to create controversy over the rail project. The diplomat also noted that European diplomats use Route 443, which runs beyond the 1967 border between the Tel Aviv area and Jerusalem, and would use the new train line once it is in operation.
Faaborg-Andersen confirmed that he did not intend to participate in the tour but refused to respond to questions from Haaretz on the subject.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz expressed surprise over the European ambassadors’ decision. “The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem fast train line is a national project that will connect the capital of Israel to all parts of the country and is being built in accordance with the laws of the State of Israel for the benefit of the entire population of the region and with the approval of the Supreme Court,” he stated.
“In this context, the ambassadors from the foreign countries were invited to see and get an impression of this important undertaking. The intervention of the ambassador from the European Union and his attempt to prevent the ambassadors from coming constitutes inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of the State of Israel. Are they boycotting the fast train to Jerusalem? In advance of the next date set for the tour, I will personally approach the ambassadors of the countries from which companies have taken part in building the project and will ask them to come,” Katz said.
An official in his ministry said that the underground segment of the railway that is on the other side of the Green Line is a few hundred meters in length.
In November 2010, Israel’s Civil Administration expropriated 50 dunam (around 13 acres) from the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa for the new railway. A railway tunnel, a few dozen meters underground, was to be built on a 20-dunam swath of this area, with the remaining 30 dunam to serve as a staging area for construction of the tunnel. The latter portion of land was to be rehabilitated after construction was completed and returned to its owners.
In May 2011, Germany’s national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, announced that it was pulling out of the railway project because part of the line was to pass through the West Bank. The company, which is owned by the German government, had been serving as a consultant to Israel Railways, and for this specific project was responsible primarily for reviewing documents.
The German weekly Der Spiegel had reported at the time that Germany’s transport minister at the time. Peter Ramsauer, told Deutsche Bahns CEO that the projected rail line was “problematic from a political perspective” and violates international law.