A day before the long-awaited Tel Aviv light rail starts serving Israel’s largest metropolis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ceremoniously launched the project’s first leg on Thursday, accompanied by shouts from nearby protesters and amid major traffic blockages across Tel Aviv and its surrounding cities.
The premier cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony at one terminus of the Red Line in Petah Tikva, saying: “This line will serve everyone — those who support us and those who oppose us. This is a festive day for Israel.”
The Red Line, which stretches over 34 stations from Bat Yam to Petah Tikva, will officially open to the public on Friday. The government mass transit agency NTA oversaw the work on the 24-kilometer (15-mile) line, which has been under construction since 2015.
Rides will be free on Friday, but the light rail system will start collecting fares on Saturday night. Trips within Tel Aviv will cost 5 shekels, or about $1.30, and longer trips will cost just over $3.
Hundreds of protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plan gathered outside the ceremony’s venue with Israeli flags, and their shouts and boos and horn-blowing were heard while the premier spoke, requiring him to raise his voice.
“There are always obstacles. They have to be overcome. When people, some of them behind us here, told us not to open up the economy, we opened it and succeeded,” Netanyahu said, presumably referring to the protesters and to political rivals. “They told us not to extract gas from the sea. We extracted it and succeeded. They told us not to build the Egyptian border fence. We built it and saved the country [from an influx of economic migrants]. They told us it is impossible to achieve peace with Arab states without solving the Palestinians [issue]. We did it and we’ll solve the Palestinians. That too.
“We did all those things, and today we’re connecting the country — between cities, inside cities, and between states,” he said, alluding to a planned project he spoke of last month to one day run a fast-rail route to Saudi Arabia.
Demonstrators also gathered earlier in the day at various locations along the route as Netanyahu and his wife Sara took a test ride aboard the new light rail. Some 1,000 police officers helped secure the route, Hebrew media reported.
Road blockages started in stages at 7 a.m. and ended around 4 p.m. Leaders of the protest movement had asserted that the extensive road closures were due to police efforts to prevent demonstrators from disrupting the tour. They petitioned police Wednesday to prevent “the paralysis of all of Tel Aviv for the benefit of the dictator taking a ride on the light rail,” saying the closures were “unreasonable” and “deranged,” and on Thursday morning they appealed to the High Court of Justice against the move, but the court didn’t intervene.
Anti-government protest organizers have announced plans to disrupt Friday’s launch and block the line’s route.
Transportation Minister Miri Regev also spoke at the ceremony, failing to mention her predecessor Merav Michaeli, now in the opposition, who wasn’t invited to the ceremony. Regev thanked all the mayors of the cities through which the line passes except Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who had boycotted the ceremony.
On Wednesday, Huldai said he would skip the event, citing his support for public transportation on Shabbat. “This is my protest,” he said in a video statement. “The light rail must also operate and serve the public on weekends, as is fitting in a liberal and democratic country.”
Michaeli had sought to have the line operate on Shabbat, but her promise — questionable from the start because the line runs through the Haredi city of Bnei Brak — fell through when the new government came to power.
On Wednesday, Regev was booed by anti-government protesters and met with cries of “shame” during an earlier ceremonial launch event. The event in Jaffa was attended by Regev and executives involved in the project.
In her speech at Thursday’s ceremony, Regev joked: “Mr. prime minister, you have no idea how thankful some residents are — they waited for me with blowing horns, I saw the excitement in their eyes.”
She thanked the mayors of the cities through which the Red Line runs, while noting that “one of them didn’t show up because of petty politics” — a reference to Huldai. She praised Netanyahu’s leadership and told him: “You are the one steering Israel and connecting it to the world.”
The ceremony was also attended by Energy Minister Israel Katz — a former longtime transportation minister — as well as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — also a former transportation minister — along with coalition MKs and mayors.
The government’s plans to dramatically reshape the judiciary have been met with months of mass protests. Opponents have hounded government ministers, holding demonstrations at locations where they make public appearances. Earlier this week protesters demonstrated outside Moshav Ramot near the Sea of Galilee where Netanyahu was having a family vacation. Last week, Netanyahu’s previous vacation in the Golan community of Neve Ativ was also met by protests.
Beyond the protests against Netanyahu and cabinet members, a growing chorus of opponents have taken aim at the light rail itself, with calls to boycott the line over the government’s refusal to operate it on Shabbat.
Though most public transportation is inactive during the Jewish day of rest, the opening of the years-in-the-making project has refocused attention on the lack of transportation options for secular Israelis who do not own cars, as secular anger over religious limitations in the public sphere grows amid the larger protests.
JTA contributed to this report.