News Analysis: Israel's plan to revive Hejaz railway to negatively affect Lebanon: analysts

Source: Xinhua| 2018-12-31 05:21:01|Editor: yan
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by Dana Halawi

BEIRUT, Dec. 30 (Xinhua) -- Israel's plan to revive the historic Hejaz railway connecting Europe with the Gulf and Israel will have negative repercussions on Lebanon, according to analysts.

"Beirut has already lost its role as a regional economic and banking hub. When this railway is completed, the role of Beirut as a harbor will also disappear," Hilal Kashan, chair of the Political Studies Department at the American University of Beirut, told Xinhua.

Khashan said that the transport of goods through the railway is easier and faster than using trucks.

The railway, a 1,300 km track, was built by the Ottomans in 1908 to transport goods on locomotives from the Mediterranean Sea to the souk of Damascus and the Saudi holy city of Medina.

The once busy train line linked the heartland of the Arabian Peninsula to the port of Haifa on the Mediterranean. The railway closed in 1920 as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Israeli Intelligence and Transport Minister Yisrael Katz made it clear on several occasions that Israel is keen on reviving the historic Hejaz railway through the Tracks for Regional Peace initiative which is intended to create a trade route connecting Europe with the Gulf and Israel.

Retired Army General Khalil Helou reiterated Khashan's views, saying that such a railway would cost Lebanon heavy economic losses, because Haifa harbor is closer to the Gulf than Beirut port, and that Israel is more stable in general than Lebanon.

He added that Haifa harbor may also provide more attractive facilities than those offered by Beirut port.

Helou said that Haifa harbor can surely compete with Beirut's harbor, as the latter is no longer able to facilitate transport of products to the Gulf region through Nasib border.

As the only functioning crossing between Jordan and Syria, Nasib is vital for the transport of goods from Lebanon and Syria to Jordan and the Gulf states.

The border crossing was closed in 2015 when the rebels took over the Nasib area and the crossing in the countryside of Daraa Province in southern Syria. It re-opened again lately.

"The border has opened only for Jordanian trucks and Lebanon is not yet capable of sending anything through Nasib," he said.

However, analysts strongly believe that the railway project will definitely begin.

Khashan said that Katz's announcement fulfills the aspirations of former Israeli officials.

He noted that former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has always said he wanted Israel to become a commercial and financial hub with Lebanon being a tourism destination only.

"Also, former Israeli President Shimon Peres wanted to establish a Mideast economic system with Israel being the center of it," he said.

Similarly, Helou believed this project will come sooner or later since Israel has a great interest to revive it.

While analysts also believe that the implementation of the project will require some time as a peace agreement between the Gulf countries and Israel is still absent.

Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but it has not signed such deals with the Gulf countries, Syria or Lebanon.

Helou said that a peace agreement between the Gulf countries and Israel should come into effect before the railway project can be implemented.

"I do not know to which extent Saudi Arabia is ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel," he said, adding that "if it does, then this project will materialize and Lebanon will be greatly affected."

Likewise, Khashan said that if peace with Israel comes into effect, this will restore the role of Haifa harbor.