A train of the light rail system at the depot next to the neighbourhood of Shuafat in occupied east Jerusalem. The occupied city's first light railway starts test runs this spring but Palestinians hope to derail the $1 billion tram because they fear it will further enforce Israeli control over occupied east Jerusalem. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: In few months from now, the scene will be different.

Thousands of Jewish colonists will gather each day outside the ancient Damascus Gate, the vital gateway of the old city in Occupied East Jerusalem - not to demonstrate against their government's policies or to vent their feelings towards the Arabs - but to use the city's new public "light rail" transport system.

The Occupied East Jerusalem station, one of the central stations in the plan, is scheduled to start operating next April. It is just 20 metres away from Damascus Gate, one of seven gates to the old city and, Palestinian activists say, the most vital to the economy of the old city.

"This light rail project is part of [a plan to] Judaise [Occupied] Jerusalem," said Jamal Juma, a Jerusalemite who heads the Palestinian grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign and is active against Israeli colonial activities.

"It will connect the colonies built in Occupied East Jerusalem with both the old town in the occupied eastern part of the city, and the western part of Jerusalem," Juma told Gulf News in an interview. "This rail project is first and foremost a colonial project."

Interactive: "Judaising" of Jerusalem

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Transportation, Juma explained, is one of the most important bases for development and expansion. "This train will reinforce the colonies in Occupied East Jerusalem and its surroundings," Juma said.

While the central station is anticipated to attract nearly 10,000 colonists every morning and evening from the colonies built in and around Occupied East Jerusalem, Israel is stealthily changing the reality on the ground, Palestinian activists cry.

But that's a cry that is apparently going unanswered.

An intensive Jewish presence outside the old city will leave a different impression among visitors to the area as well as the original inhabitants of the city, making it "as if they are in a Jewish neighbourhood," Palestinians say.

The fate of Occupied East Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in peace talks between Palestinian and Israelis.

Israel, which captured the city from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israel War, said Occupied Jerusalem is its "united and eternal" capital. The Palestinians also insist that Occupied East Jerusalem is the capital of their future state.

However, even before a solution is reached on the negotiating table, Israel has drawn its own plans for the city - and is actively implementing them.

The situation is similar to "two people negotiating on a piece of a cheese. One party is talking and the other one is eating the piece," said Mustafa Barghouti, an MP and secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a reformist movement.

"Once the first finishes talking, the other would have finished eating and nothing is left," he said. "Israel is taking the land and everything else."

Between now and 2020, the Israelis are expected to complete their "Judaism plan" in the Occupied East Jerusalem, said Khalil Tofakji, head of the Mapping Department at the Arab Studies Society in Occupied Jerusalem.

Huge amounts of money were allocated to implement the Israel plan. According to Palestinian sources, nearly $1.5 billion is allocated in the current year alone by Israel to "Judaise" the city.

Israel was going ahead with its plan to "impose a new reality on the ground", Barghouti said.

The metro project coincides with other projects aimed at boosting the Jewish presence in city at the expense of the Arab Muslim and Christian presence in Occupied East Jerusalem.

These plans include building luxury hotels, digging tunnels in the old city and constructing synagogues in the Eastern part of Occupied Jerusalem.

The $500 million light rail project is at the centre of the plan, with a six-kilometre railway being built on a main street that has already been confiscated from Arab property.

The street connects the Occupied Eastern part of Occupied Jerusalem with the West Bank city of Ramallah. The same street is also the dividing line between the two parts of Occupied Jerusalem. It is located on the armistice line between Jordan and Israel during the 1948 and 1967, "so the light rail won't receive great attention and create problems," noted Palestinian activists.

Boosting Jewish presence in the city coincides with other steps, including the policy of stripping the Arab Palestinians from their identity cards, homes and rights in their own city. Palestinian homes are demolished under many false pretexts, such as they were illegally built. The Israelis, moreover, "practically, are occupying the Palestinian houses inside the old town, which was historically divided to four quarters, Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish," Juma said.

"Israelis are slowly infiltrating the other quarters and taking over Palestinian properties," Juma said.

Despite the fact that Palestinians pay the same taxes as Israelis to the municipality of Occupied Jerusalem, only a small fraction of Arab money goes to improving the services provided to them, Jerusalemites complain.

"[Occupied] East Jerusalem seems to live in the middle ages, while the West Jerusalem lives in the 21st century," Tofakji said.

With current Israeli policies, "prospects of an independent Palestinian state are diminishing," Barghouti said.

"What the Israelis are doing in Occupied Jerusalem resembles what they did in Jaffa, Haifa and Acre," Barghouti said, referring to the three main cities which were captured in the 1948 war and became part of Israel.

"They are gradually taking over the place and then declare their demands," added the former peace negotiator who resigned from the negotiating delegation in protest against the course of the talks which led to the Oslo accords and the continuation of Israeli colony building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Today, the number of Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, living in the old city of Occupied Jerusalem is estimated at 30,000 compared with 4,000 Jews. In Occupied East Jerusalem, the number of Arabs is estimated at 300,000 compared with nearly 200,000 Jews.

All the Israeli measures in Occupied East Jerusalem are a "flagrant violation" to the international law, Palestinian and Arab legal experts stress.

Starting from the beginning of Israeli annexation to the eastern part of Occupied Jerusalem, which the Security Council considered "illegal, null and void", every unilateral Israeli measure is an infringement to international law, said Jordanian international law professor Gassan Jundi.

Moving colonists to eastern Jerusalem to replace Palestinians contradicts the Geneva conventions, he added.

"Occupation forces can't change the characteristics of the occupied land," Jundi said. "Occupation doesn't lead to a transfer of sovereignty to the occupying party."

TImeline: Jerusalem since 1948

1948: The United Nations adopted in 1947 the Partition Plan for Palestine which, while dividing the country into Arab and Jewish States, retained the unity of Jerusalem by providing an international regime under United Nations control. That formula, however, could not be implemented. It did not stop the violence or alter the efforts of the parties to control the city by force. The Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement of 1949 formalised the de facto division of the city into the eastern sector, including the old city, controlled by Jordan (which also controlled the West Bank), and the western sector, or the new city which had been developing since the nineteenth century, controlled by the new State of Israel.

1967: Israel captures Arab East Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, and unilaterally annexed the sector in a move not recognised by the international community. In the same year, the Knesset passed three laws which expanded the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality and ordered the application of Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration in East Jerusalem.

1980: The Israeli colonies constructed in Jerusalem were put under the Israeli law and jurisdiction following the Israeli Knesset adoption of the Jerusalem Basic Law, which officially annexed East Jerusalem. This is unlike the colonies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

1990: Former President George Bush said in a press conference on March 3, 1990, that east Jerusalem was occupied territory and not a sovereign part of Israel as the Israelis claimed.

1996: The Council of Ministers of the European Union officially considers East Jerusalem to be an occupied territory and rejects Israel’s claims of sovereignty over East Jerusalem. In a statement by the Council of Ministers dated October 1, 1996, the European Union announced: “East Jerusalem is subject to the principles stipulated by the UN Security Council Resolution 242, in particular in terms of prohibition of seizing lands by force.

2000: On September 6, 2000, late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told the UN Millennium Summit that he is committed to establishing, unilaterally, a Palestinian State with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. The US asked Arab countries not to issue declarations about Jerusalem that might hamper diplomatic efforts under way in the hopes of jump-starting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. On September 6, 2000, Arafat told the UN Millennium Summit that he is committed to establishing, unilaterally, a Palestinian state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.

2010: The quartet of Middle East peace negotiators, meeting in Moscow, condemned for the second time Israeli plans for new colonies in East Jerusalem, but the US suggested Israel was moving to address the issue. The same principle was reinstated in August.