Israel-Palestine: Forget the peace talks, follow the rail tracks

While the Israeli government's plans for a rail network linking Israel to the West Bank and Gaza may bring a slight improvement in living standards, it also has the potential to erase Palestinian opportunities for independent economic development and perm

Anyone wishing to read the omens for John Kerry's latest bid at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking need look no further than last month's Israeli government announcement to proceed with the construction of a rail network linking Israel to the West Bank and Gaza.

Ignore the diplomatic statements issuing from Ramallah and Jerusalem, this rail project visibly demonstrates how Israel sees the future of the West Bank. It is not as an independent sovereign Palestine. 

At 473km long and encompassing 11 lines and some 30 stations this new plan will complete the work of colonising Palestine, integrating its geography and economy into Israel. West Bank cities as far apart as Hebron, Jericho and Tulkarem, along with the illegal settlements of Ariel, Kiryat Arba and Ma'ale Adumim will all be connected to Israel proper, finally erasing the already punctured and porous Green Line. 

Of course, as Rachel Neeman points out in Haaretz the plan could conceivably point the way to the realisation of a binational state, or alternatively could be a decoy to keep Naftali Bennet and the settlers on board whilst Netanyahu pursues a peace strategy.  Unfortunately both interpretations are likely to be much too optimistic.

From 1967 until the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987, Israel pursued a policy of integrating the Palestinian population into its economy.  Under Oslo it abandoned this policy and decided instead on closure and then disengagement, a policy that reached its peak under Sharon and Olmert. Now this rail plan suggests a further reconfiguration of Israel's strategy regarding keeping the West Bank territory and managing its population. 

Netanyahu, despite his famous Bar-Ilan speech of June 2009 when he supposedly embraced the concept of two states for two peoples, has never favoured that outcome.  The West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as he prefers to call it, remains "the land of our forefathers," and any idea that he would willingly cede the ninety percent plus necessary for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state is fanciful to all except it seems Saeb Erekat and John Kerry. 

This rail plan then should rather be understood in terms of Netanyahu's "economic peace". Speaking in 2008 he dismissed peace talks as "based only on one thing, only on peace talks," and declared, "It makes no sense at this point to talk about the most contractible issue... That has led to failure and is likely to lead to failure again."  Instead he recommended "weaving an economic peace alongside a political process. That means that we have to strengthen the moderate parts of the Palestinian economy by handing rapid growth in those areas, rapid economic growth that gives a stake for peace for the ordinary Palestinians." 

This rail plan should be understood in these terms. While the tracks will undoubtedly increase the potential for Israeli economic exploitation of the underemployed Palestinian population - unemployment in the West Bank stands at 20.3 per cent - and so may lead to some measure of improved personal living standards, they will also erase the Palestinian potential for independent economic development and permanently embed the occupation both politically and economically.

Indeed, this rail plan reveals that Israel is not concerned with ending the occupation but merely reconfiguring it.  Under it Israel will keep the territory and resources of the West Bank, harness its population for labour, yet leave their management to the Palestinian Authority.  In short, it marks an end to the Oslo concept of land for peace and a return to the first decades of the occupation with the exception that it now embraces Moshe Dayan's injunction: "Don’t rule them, let them lead their own lives."

The Palestinian Authority understands this and so has refused to co-operate with the plan, however, through re-engaging in the negotiation process and thereby adding "the political process" dimension Netanyahu envisioned as a twin prop to his economic peace, it is in fact becoming complict with this final colonisation plan. The man who announced the plan, Irsaeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently said, “a Palestinian state is unacceptable, mainly because of our right to this land.” It is time the Palestinian Authority and the international community acknowledged this is Israel's reality and so ceased being accomplices to its realisation.

Jewish settlers waving an Israeli flag. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.