lundi 22 août 2011

A streetcar named desire

I guess I should write about last week’s terror attacks near Eilat and the ongoing violence in the South, with about one hundred rockets falling on the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheva since Friday. But I think the worse in terrorism, as its name shows, is it capacity of putting the threatened population to such a level of stress and trauma that they stop living a “normal” life. Indeed, and even though it first seems terrible to think this as we mourn every single loss, suicide bombing and other blind attacks on civilians do not cost so many casualties (to understand my thought just compare with the results of air bombings by the Allies during the liberation of Europe in 1944-1945). So this is why this post won’t deal with the conflict: there’s simply no way I suddenly forget everything more or less “normal” that happens in this country “just” because some people don’t want us to live here. So I still enjoy sitting on terrace of a café, or walking down busy pedestrian streets. Or ridding the bus. Or the streetcar now!

                Because the inauguration of the light rail is the great Jerusalemite piece of news of the, say… decade? Yes, I might be slightly exaggerating but it’s true that the works to put in place this means of transportation for the first time in Israel started over ten years ago. I guess in any given place in the world things would have moved on faster. Actually, even Chavez’s project in Caracas moves on faster! This is mainly due to a conjunction of absurd mistakes (such as installing the rails the wrong way. No, sadly it’s not a joke) realized way latter and, as many institutions were involved in the project (CityPass, the company that provides the service ; the municipality ; the ministry of transportations ; the Knesset…) all this created a huge amount of red-tape (and, probably knowing the state of the Israeli political world, some more corruption).  For the last episodes (so far one Jerusalemite woud say) of this tragicomedy: over the last six months test have been made as it was realized that bridges might not be able to support the weigh (you have to know each light rail is considerably long and can carry over 500 persons); only a third of the so-called “intelligent traffic lights” that are supposed to give the priority to the light rail at junctions, have been implemented and the system of coordination with bus tickets doesn’t work.  Despite these aspects (and despite the lack of required safety audit by an independent organization…) CityPass was denied an umpteenth delay and was forced to start its commercial operations last Friday.

                But I don’t want the reader to think everything goes wrong with the light rail. Along with over 40000 inhabitants each wagon was incredibly over packed!)  I’ve ridden it for its inauguration and I’ve to say that for someone like who didn’t really suffer from all the related balagan (the drop in the real-estate during the works in the then and now again fancy Jaffa street is quite amazing, many storekeepers went bankrupt as no one could enter the street by car), it’s really a great innovation: “green”, silent, fast (at least it will be when it stop stopping five minute at each station as it currently does so that everyone understands that we should let people get out of the wagon first and then go into it). It should make transportation in downtown Jerusalem way easier and more comfortable than now by bus (actually I’ve still not decided whether bus driver here are superheroes or crazy psychopaths [I know, most of the time psychopaths are crazy…]), especially who go from the Takhana Hamerkazit (the central bus station) to Ben-Yehuda at the end of the afternoon (making bus cross Makhana Yehuda’s shouk [mostly known in the Arabic form souk] is definitely not a good idea…).

                Alas, despite my attempt, one cannot escape for long the security issues here, and many are concern that the light rail is a “fashionable” target for any virgins-seeking jihadist, and a more vulnerable one than buses, where the driver can more easily check for suspect luggage as every passenger as to pass by him at the front door when he enters. Moreover, the debated heated up on the journey of the rail, as it crosses and stops at the Damscus gate and at the Arab neighborhoods of Shuafat and Bei Hanina (actually just North of my haGiv’a HaTsarfatit neighborhood which I hope will soon be the topic of a post on this blog. Oh, and I’ll try to add a map of the city too). Both sides criticized it: Palestinian activists because it accentuates the de facto unification of Jerusalem, right-wing ones because it’s “one more flaw in the security system” of the light rain. But actually I tend to see the bride side, which was quite perceptible when I was inside: the passengers come from all social and cultural backgrounds and represent quite well the diversity of the WHOLE city. For instance, it eases the circulation of Muslim pilgrims toward the Old City for the Friday prayer. It’s a fact that the Israeli government won’t give up on Jerusalem so from this observation one would find it segregative if the city hall had decided to exclude the Arab population from this project that comes at last true and that should be an occasion of uniting us rather than dividing us again.

P.S: note that I speak of Arab neighborhoods and not of “East-Jerusalem” as one could find just by staying one day that the latter concept, heir of the 1949 armistice lines (also called the Green Line ; but absolutely not “1967 borders” as is too often said), is totally irrelevant to the actual situation here nowadays. 

mardi 9 août 2011

« Bibi, take this invisible hand out of my a** ! »

After a few weeks devoted to discovering Israel and settling in Jerusalem, I’m back to this blog. Apparently, even back in « good old » France the media don’t equate Israel and « THE » [Middle-East ] conflict these days as the country is in the news for a totally different reason: the biggest social movement ever here. So before you guys start comparing with the European situation (Greece, the indignants in Spain…) or even to the “Arab spring” (I know you would  :p ) as some desk-locked journalists can have, let’s take a step back to analyze the situation.
Once upon a time, all started with the Cottage Cheese Rebellion. (Sounds good, eih? ;) )It’s enemy was (and still is) the monopolistic Tenuvah corporation (formerly an association of kibbutzim producing dairies bought three years ago by an American-based multinational corporation) that imposes prices way higher than in other OECD countries. This made “the people” realize how their purchasing power is low and the cost of life high despite having one of the best growth rate of the developed world (between 4 and 5% ; don’t be too jealous fellow Europeans/Americans ^^). Among the most disputed thing: housing prices.  Here too monopolies and tycoons have taken profit from their situation to impose rents unaffordable for students and young couples. And then it became big: three weeks ago tents appeared on Rothschild Boulevard (since renamed “if I were a Rothschild boulevard” à “ boulevard mon père c’est pas Rothschild” as would have said a famous French humorist…), a major road in Tel-Aviv (the city being the economic capital by the way). Now they are hundreds, and similar “tent-cities” have appeared on other streets and cities (for example here in Jerusalem we have some just in front of my ulpan [Hebrew class]). The population is quite clearly behind them, sharing their concerns and doubting the efficiency of a (too?) free-market economy (remember the socialist origins of the country: chassez le naturel il revient au gallop…). The result is 150000 and then 300000 people in the streets the two last Saturday nights in all the country. Not too impressive for France, but at equal population it would be over 2 million and a half!
To detail a bit, the government owns the huge majority of unused lands and sells it after having approved the housing project proposed by the purchasing real-estate corporation. So the Netanyahu government came out last week of its mutism to propose a plan to accelerate the rate of construction not the less through the simplification of the approval procedure. Less red-tape = more efficiency. But the population here more generally revolts against the lack of regulation that gives all power to monopolies. “The market was privatized but not liberalized” told me a student at the Rothschild boulevard. So the heart of the discussion is whether the new bill will be able to constraint real-estate entrepreneurs to include a certain share of housing for the poorer. I would tend to say it will, but now that the movement is born it keeps spreading all over Israel as many more complaints persist: high and equal VAT in all economic sectors, drowning middle-classes…
So now let’s come back to this “Indignants” thing: first, to have talked with the protesters they themselves don’t feel being the “comrades in arms” of the European young protesters. Second, the situation IS different: not struggle against a brutal slash of government expenditures so that the public sector can keep (some of) its credibility in the bond market. Actually the economic situation has been persistently good since the beginning of the crisis in 2008. So if here too “the people demands social justice” (“Ha’Am Doresh tzedek Khevrati”) it means a quite different thing than in Spain or Greece: structural reforms, not all of them proceeding from a leftist agenda (lower taxes would actually more please the American Tea Parties…) and so there isn’t this feeling of despair that could lead to skirmishes with the police or even to riots. On the contrary, I can assure you the tent-cities sometimes look like gigantic holiday camps, with Israeli artists on scene each night, sport and cultural activities… Not that the claims or not taken seriously. But the situation was not really different five years ago. And people, even if they struggle to pay the bills, have a job, which is a synonym of protection against the harshest poverty (notice “harshest”: I do not deny end of months can be tough for single moms to give just one example). And last but not least, I have to say the Israeli demonstrators are a model of calm, organization, openness and cleanness. I don’t dare imagining what such a tent-cities thing and constant demonstrations would have looked like in France. Well, they wouldn’t have happened: the youth demonstrate during the school year (not that I would imply that my fellow Frenchmen are lazy, eih ;) ) and each time vacations mean the end of the mobilization. On the contrary here people say they demonstrate BECAUSE they are on vacations. Not quite the same mentality. Maybe because all those young people are just out of their military service and have reserve periods every year. Maybe.
And what do I have to say about this “Tahrir square” comparison? Well, it’s so gross I don’t even know how to start. Maybe by saying political protests to overthrow a dictator are not quite the same as citizens of a democracy demanding lower prices. And maybe by telling the journalist that geographical proximity don’t do everything (yes, the théorie des climats by Montesquieu is outdated, I swear). Or by saying that Pour un printemps israélien is totally irrelevant, and that even if it was it has nothing to do with what is actually happening here.
P.S: it has just come to my mind that eating “cottage” might sound weird to some. So it refers to a kind of white cheese or crud cheese loved and often eaten by Israelis for breakfast with some vegetables (mostly tomatoes and cucumbers from what I know).