Jewish Journal


July 27, 2000

Already Divided

Rhetoric aside, Jerusalem's Jews and Arabs live in two separate cities.


A bazaar in an Arab section of Jerusalem.

A bazaar in an Arab section of Jerusalem.

A couple of Saturdays ago, some American friends called to say they were in town. We invited them over for drinks and a cold supper in our garden on the Street of the Prophets, two minutes from Zion Square, the hub of West Jerusalem. We had salmon and salad left over from the night before, but we needed nuts to go with the drinks, and the last of the challah had gone dry.

Like burst boilers or telephone disconnections, these emergencies always seem to strike on Shabbat. The stores on the Jewish side of town are closed; plumbers and technicians are at the beach. There are no buses on the roads. But no sweat. Jerusalem is not sleeping. Not all of it, anyway.

I walked down the hill toward the Old City, turned left before the Damascus Gate, and in 10 minutes from leaving home I was on Salah ed-Din Street, named for Saladin, the Saracen chieftain who vanquished the Crusaders in 1187. I was in the same city but had entered a different world.

Salah ed-Din was bustling with Arab shoppers: the young women in everything from jeans, T-shirts and designer shades to the ankle-length gray gabardine dresses and white silk head scarves of the Islamic revival, the men smoking heady Turkish cigarettes in safari suits and the occasional checkered Arafat kefiyeh.

Music stores were ghetto-blasting the Middle East rock of Amer Diab. An ageless shoeshine man, who has been there since I moved to Jerusalem in the early seventies, was polishing a local businessman's black Oxfords on his gleaming brass stand. Streamers advertised a festival of Palestinian theater. The only Israelis to be seen were stray policemen, minding their own business as long as no one caused any trouble.I bought peanuts and pistachios from a coffee shop, rich with the scent of fresh-roasting beans and ground cardamom. I picked up a bag of bagel-shaped sesame-seed rolls, with a twist of za'ata (dried hyssop) in an old Arabic newspaper, from a couple of 12-year-old boys with a stall.

For all the mantras of Jerusalem as "the undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people," reiterated by every Israeli leader since the Six-Day War, the city has never been monolithic. One third of its 600,000 residents are Arabs, who stubbornly rejected Israel's offer of citizenship and smarted under the bureaucracy of occupation. They kept their Jordanian passports, taught the Jordanian school curriculum, spoke their own language and lived and shopped in their own neighborhoods (though many of them worked in ours).The concrete sniper walls and barbed wire came down in June 1967, but Jerusalem remained a binational city. The divisions were cemented when the intifada erupted in December 1987. Israelis stayed away from the Old City bazaar, shunned Salah ed-Din Street, no longer took their cars to be repainted in Wadi el-Joz.Since the daily violence receded after the 1993 Oslo accords, tensions have relaxed. The more hardy Israelis go to eat hummus at Abu Shoukry's cafe. But most still keep their distance. We are here, as Ehud Barak would say, they are there.

The expansion of 10 Jewish suburbs in East Jerusalem, the planting of nationalist yeshivas in the Muslim quarter, the gradual blurring of the seams that once separated communities have made it impossible to return to the pre-1967 partition of the city. Even the Arabs do not want to re-erect the barricades.But as Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority has grown in confidence, boldness and defiance, a parallel administration has taken root in Jerusalem. Faisal Husseini, Arafat's point man, still reigns in Orient House, which fanfaring governments of right and left tried to close.

Jamil Othman, the Palestinian governor of Al Quds (the Arab name for Jerusalem), takes care of the city's 200,000 Arabs from his office in Abu Dis, just across the West Bank border. His flock voted for the Palestinian Authority president and parliament. The Palestinians have their own police, who patrol in civilian clothes and keep their guns out of sight.

"They make their presence known in every street and alley," Palestinian affairs reporter Roni Shaked wrote in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot. "They handle drug wars, thefts, everything." From time to time, Palestinian security men have detained "troublemakers" like the journalist Maher el-Alami, who protested against the rampant corruption of Arafat's administration, or the civil rights campaigner Bassem Eid and spirited them to jail in Ramallah or Jericho.

If my gardener, Jamil, needs medical treatment, he goes to the Makkassed hospital on the ridge between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. Makkassed is managed by the Palestinian Health Ministry. Jamil's children go to Palestinian schools under minimal Israeli supervision.Above all, Arafat has consolidated the Muslim grip on the Haram el-Sharif, where Solomon and Herod built their Jewish temples. Immediately after Mordechai Gur's paratroopers conquered the mount in June 1967, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered his jubilant troops to take down the Star of David flag they had raised over Al Aqsa mosque, Islam's third most sacred shrine. Dayan didn't want a holy war with the entire Muslim world.

Successive Israeli governments have preserved the status quo, under which Jews may visit the mount but not pray there, and the Islamic waqf controls the mosques. The Palestinians have built what amounts to a third, underground mosque in an archaeological site known as Solomon's Stables. Despite Israeli protests, tractors are still removing rocks, soil and potentially priceless historical remains from the mount. Neither Benjamin Netanyahu's nor Barak's administration dared to intervene.

On the mount, as in Salah ed-Din Street, Jerusalem is already divided. As Roni Shaked acknowledged in Yediot Aharonot on the eve of Camp David, "only the details remain to be finalized."

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