Give back East Jerusalem? Never, say Israeli Jews

ESTHER Elkayam is a poor woman, but her modest apartment's tiny balcony offers one of the most spectacular views in the world. Just a few thousand yards to the northeast of Mrs. Elkayam's front door is the Old City, Jerusalem's centerpiece. From the balcony, the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock - the third holiest site in Islam, built atop the ruins of Judaism's holiest site, the ancient Temple of Solomon - is etched in sharp relief against a breathtakingly blue sky. It seems to float above the four-story white stone walls that enclose the Old City.

The first 19 years that Elkayam lived in her home, this view - cherished by millions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews - was hidden from sight by a massive mound of garbage and antisniper walls. The walls were built on the border between Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Elkayam and her family lived in the last house on the last street of the last Jewish neighborhood before the no man's land that separated the city's halves between 1948 and 1967.

In the June 1967 war, Israel captured East Jerusalem. The wall in front of Elkayam's home was torn down and the garbage carted off.

Today, Israel celebrates the 20th anniversary of what Israelis call the ``reunification'' of Jerusalem. Esther Elkayam will celebrate by walking onto her balcony and feasting her eyes once again on the view. Then she will walk purposefully through the bazaars of the Old City to the Western Wall of the Temple, where she will thank God that Jews control Jerusalem.

``I do not believe Jerusalem will ever be divided again,'' she says. ``Jerusalem is holy to us. The kotel [Wailing Wall] is a holy place, a historical place. Israel could give other places back, but not Jerusalem.''

In 1948, Elkayam, her husband, and their daughters squatted in what was then a ruined house. Wealthy Arabs had fled the area in the fighting following Israel's declaration of statehood. When the fighting stopped, poor immigrant families moved in. ``My husband and I came to Jerusalem looking for a house to live in, because when we left Spain, it was to move to Jerusalem,'' she say. ``We heard that if we found a house and moved in, the government wouldn't evict us.''

The international community has never recognized Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem nor accepted its annexation of East Jerusalem. No Arab leader would even think of a comprehensive Mideast peace settlement that did not include Israel relinquishing at least partial sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

But what the rest of the world thinks is of little interest to the vast majority of Israelis.

``How do Israeli Jews feel about giving back East Jerusalem? I don't even check it anymore,'' says Hanoch Smith, an opinion pollster. ``From the beginning, it was never a serious question for Israelis.'' Since he started polling in 1973, 80 to 90 percent of Israelis polled have consistently said they would not agree to relinquish Jerusalem.

Whether the Israeli is a low-income, religious Sephardi such as Elkayam, or a secular, Ashkenazi such as Amnon Neubach, the answer is almost always the same. ``Divide Jerusalem again? Never.''

A divided Jerusalem took on particular meaning for Mr. Neubach on the evening of June 5, 1967. His elite paratrooper unit, which for three weeks had awaited orders to be airdropped into Sinai, was instead ordered to Jerusalem.

Neubach's battalion commander said simply: ``Friends, we are going to change a little the border in Jerusalem.'' At 2 o'clock the next morning, the troops crossed no man's land. Neubach's unit first captured a Jordanian policeman's school, then fought at Ammunition Hill, where Israel suffered some of its heaviest losses. Today the hill is a museum, park, and memorial. For Neubach, it is the place where he lost dozens of friends.

``Nobody thought about the future then,'' the kibbutznik-turned-businessman says. ``You must remember what the mentality was like in Israel then. We were a small country. ... we felt very alone.''

Neubach still refers to the battle for Jerusalem as a battle of liberation. Twenty years later, he is convinced that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been bad for Israel, and he would like to see most of the territory returned.

And he would not care, he says, if a Jordanian flag were flown over all Muslim holy places in the Old City and Jordanian police patrolled them. But he would never support a redivision of the city he and his comrades fought and died to reunite.

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