In 1914, a traveler could board a train in Istanbul and – with a few detours around some unfinished tunnels – cross the Anatolian plateau past the Taurus Mountains into Syria. From Damascus, the new Hejaz Railway continued on through modern-day Jordan to Medina in Arabia, with branch railways connecting to Beirut and Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. Another line ran between the main Palestinian port of Jaffa and Jerusalem. A major 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.
This arrangement was already being eroded by rising nationalisms – not least among the Turks themselves — 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 its 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 also the largest industrial enterprise in Palestine, with a workforce of more than 1200. However, when Arab and immigrant Jewish workers agitated for labor unity in Haifa, their efforts were frustrated by the Zionist union Histadrut, which was promoting a policy of exclusively “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 sabotaged by the Jewish Hagana and never rebuilt. Most of the Palestinian workers at the Haifa rail yards were terrorized by Zionist attacks and soon found themselves 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.
Ironically, Israel is the only state in the region which has put significant resources into developing its internal rail network. But employment on the railway – like most of Israel’s public sector and utilities — is more or less reserved for Jews only. The few Palestinian employees have been struggling in court to retain their jobs in the face of a new regulation that railroad workers must have served in the Israeli army – thus excluding Arab citizens.
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.
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. He explains the origins of the piece: 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’Louain, 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.