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Friday, 24 May 2013

The Railway: Karmiel City’s 2020 Vision

“My relationship with trains is so close now that every time my train meets one going the other way I expect to see myself on it, waving.”

(George Szirtes, a Hungarian-born poet who lives and works in he U.K.)

Israeli life happens in short bursts. 

If you remember The Six Day War, you know what I mean!

This year, an unusually cold, intensely wet winter segued into spring with barely a backward glance and as April ended, we found ourselves putting away our heaters and woollies and starting to worry about the spiralling costs of air conditioning.

But here in Karmiel there are more pressing anxieties. On Sunday 05 May, the military deployed two Iron Dome missile defence batteries near us, each in Tzfat and Haifa. The move came barely hours after Israel allegedly blew up a shipment of Iranian missiles intended for the terrorist group, Hezbollah near the Syrian capital,  Damascus.

How long tensions will remain this high I cannot predict but matters were considered serious enough for Prime Minister Netanyahu to convene a security cabinet meeting and thus delay a highly publicised proposed trade mission to China.

It is often remarked that external foes aside, Israel is a society at continual war with itself and a recent skirmish between the City of Karmiel and the government is a good illustration.

Acco-Karmiel.Railway.LayoutThe row was over the construction of a double track, 23 kilometre stretch of rail between Acco and Karmiel which  had been underway for about 18 months when Yair Lapid, the recently elected Minister of Finance attempted to stymie it as part of swingeing budgetary cuts.

Everyone in the area, from long-serving Mayor Adi Eldar to ordinary citizens and even non-residents living as far away as the Golan were hopping mad and a large demonstration at the city’s entrance was planned in protest. Organisers of a hastily drawn petition collected at least 12,000 names, intending to hand it over to the relevant authorities. But arrangements were cancelled with barely hours to spare when those holding the purse strings had their minds changed.

One of my acquaintances pointed out: "The railway would not only help the development of Karmiel - it would help all the northern towns and villages. We live in Katsrin on the Golan (45 minutes from Karmiel) and I am counting on the Karmiel railway to get me to the centre of the country instead of having to drive so many hours."

And another person living on the periphery noted: “If, in fact, this Acco-Karmiel railway is terminated I will be interested to see if the inflation in housing prices that occurred when the project was announced will be deflated.”

Both of these are excellent arguments but before adding my own, I’ll give a little background: Karmiel is the site of one of two rail stations planned and it is hoped that eventually the line will be extended to Korazim near Tzfat and then on to Kiryat Shemona, at Israel’s northern tip.

The public memory is short, so many Israelis will have forgotten that the idea of the railway line was aired - then dismissed – also for financial reasons -  during  the Sharon administration. Moreover, an alternative plan to construct a light railway linking Karmiel and Haifa was also rejected. But the idea for a ’heavy railway’ was revived in February 2010 when the government approved a budget of about NIS 2.8 billion (about US $750M), leaving a further NIS 2.2 billion outstanding for electrifying the line, rolling stock and other new lines.

So the costs are enormous but almost all those affected -  Karmiel, Israel Railways, many residents of the city and region - even tourists - will be recompensed handsomely when the plan comes to fruition. No more will well-meaning visitors observe – like one in March 2011: “… it is a little tricky to get there as bus times are a bit hit and miss, requiring a journey at Tel Aviv, Haifa, Acco or Tiberius.   The railway network doesn’t cover the greater Galilee area ….”

But while I’m totally in favour of the scheme, I also see drawbacks.

First: The ‘heavy railway’, chosen in favour over a light rail system, still leaves residents of local Arab towns and villages without immediate access to the network. A report in Haaretz as long ago as December 2009 argued that building a light rail system would avoid having to appropriate Arab land while the heavy rail project would  mean ‘confiscating’ such  land, digging a five-kilometre tunnel, setting up three new interchanges and finding a way to avoid damage to ancient graves in the area - which may delay the project  for several years.

Further, the system now being built will not serve residents of Arab villages as no stops are being built there. Even in 2009 Mr Eldar argued that a light rail system would leave “the people of Kiryat Shemona  … waiting for the train for another 100 years.

“Only a train can link Karmiel to the centre of the country in one hour and 15 minutes. Israel Railway already planned the line and I support the ministers' decision,” he said.  

Mr Eldar, a visionary, sees a utopian future in which by 2020 the railway will help Karmiel’s transformation from a pleasant northern countryside town into a major city with a 100,000-strong population and an important tourist centre offering much more than its prestigious annual dance festival.

But  I’m also a cynic: As the population grows and so too attendant health problems, Karmiel will be in desperate need of its own full-scale hospital not simply a series of clinics and an emergency room. Where in God’s own vineyard are we going to acquire the money for that?

* The video below, from the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, examines integrating Soviet olim (immigrants) into Karmiel.

 

Mark.UlyseasThis piece first appeared in the June 2013 edition of Live Encounters magazine (http://liveencounters.net/?p=3394) edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

msniw

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