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In the Middle East, The Railroad Not Taken

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In the Middle East, the Railroad Not Taken

by Jeff Klein on December 15, 2010

(revised from)

By Jeff Klein

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Earlier this fall a group of Palestine Justice activists from Cape Cod organized a "Rails for Reconciliation" event, which involved taking Amtrak's Downeaster from Boston to meet a group of like-minded folks for a rally in Sacco, Maine. Participating along with WLPF members from the Cape were Holocaust survivor and Gaza Freedom Marcher Hedy Epstein, young Irishman Fiachra O'Luain, who was one of the people roughed up by Israeli commandos in the last Free Gaza Flotilla, and myself. This was adapted from remarks I was asked to make at Boston's North Station.

In 1914, a traveler could board a train in Istanbul and -- with a few detours around some unfinished tunnels -- cross the Anatolian plateau and the Taurus Mountains into Syria. From Damascus, the new Hejaz Railway continued on through modern-day Jordan to Medina in Arabia, with branch lines connecting to Beirut and Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. Another railroad ran between the main Palestinian port of Jaffa and Jerusalem. And a major new rail project to link Damascus and Baghdad -- and eventually Basra on the Persian Gulf -- was under construction, with long segments already completed.

This was possible because most of what we call The Middle East was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was no paradise, but within its larger regional structure a relatively lax central administration left room for considerable local autonomy. The Ottoman system also allowed a measure of cultural pluralism, with self-management and protection for different ethnic/religious communities. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side-by-side and ran their own communal affairs, generally with little friction and minimal intervention by the central authorities.

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Rising nationalism -- not least among the Turks themselves -- was already eroding this arrangement in the years before the First World War, but it was destroyed utterly by military defeat and the intervention of the Great Powers. In the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement Britain and France divided the Ottoman territories into colonial spheres of influence. Then they carved out a patchwork of weak protectorates, delineating the borders that would eventually become Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine -- all without the consent of the indigenous peoples of the region. In the process, they helped to inflame and exacerbate ethnic rivalries in the classic colonial pattern of "divide and rule."

Recognizing the strategic importance of the railroads, the occupying powers also specified in great detail how the lines would be parceled out between them. The British were especially keen to develop rail transport within their sphere. By the 1940's, they had established regular train service from Cairo up the coast of Palestine through Gaza and eventually extending on to Beirut.

Haifa, with its new deepwater port, soon became the main transportation hub in Mandate Palestine. Its rail maintenance yards were the largest industrial enterprise in Palestine, with a workforce of more than 1200. However, when Arab and radical immigrant Jewish workers agitated for labor unity in Haifa, their efforts were frustrated by the Zionist union Histadrut, which was promoting a policy of "Hebrew Labor" in preparation for the founding of a Jewish State.

The railroads would mostly not survive the wars that followed the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine. In the ensuing fighting, key sections of the Haifa-Jordan railway were demolished by the Jewish Hagana and never rebuilt. Most of the Palestinian workers at the Haifa rail yards, terrorized by Zionist attacks, soon found themselves as refugees in neighboring countries. In Lebanon, the rail system was shattered by inter-communal civil war and Israeli bombing during the 1970's and 80's. The Hejaz railway was mostly abandoned, its grand terminal in Damascus lying empty today. In Egypt there is no longer rail service east of the Suez Canal.

Israel has put significant resources into developing its internal rail network, but now employment on the railway -- like most of Israel's public sector and utilities -- is more or less reserved for Jews only. The few Palestinian workers have been struggling in court to retain their jobs in the face of a new regulation that railroad employees must have served in the Israeli army-- thus excluding Arab citizens who make up 20% of the population.

Given the decades of bloody conflicts that followed intervention of the European powers, it is not surprising that many in the Middle East now look with a certain nostalgia on the period of Ottoman rule. Of course, no one actually imagines a return to the vanished empire, but it is becoming equally clear that long-term prospects for sustained development will require a renewed regional integration. Ironically, it is modern Turkey, seemingly rejected by Europe, which has lately become the key promoter of political and economic cooperation among its Middle East neighbors.

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These days, it may be hard to be optimistic for Middle East peace in the face of a seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine conflict. But the current status quo of occupation and violence is not sustainable. Sooner or later, there will be a resolution -- either through two states in an economic association (whose possibility seems to be receding), or in a single bi-national country with equal rights for all its citizens. Either outcome could be a powerful stimulus for regional development.

Taking the long view, it is worth remembering that for generations France and Germany fought wars vastly more destructive than anything experienced in the Middle East. But today, in the European Union, you can get on a train in Berlin and travel to Paris without ever having to show a passport.

Jeff Klein is a retired local union president in Boston.


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I am a retired machinist and local union president living in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston and active with Dorchester People for Peace ( I have participated in local organizing for peace, racial and economic justice and (more...)

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In the Middle East, The Railroad Not Taken