On the line in Jerusalem

A reporter lives in an area where Jews and Arabs keep a peaceful iftenuous coexistence.

Lived for two months in Abu Tor inside the silence," Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai writes in "Poems of Jerusalem."

So did I, give or take a few weeks. From my window, I watched the Natsche family's children hang their laundry out to dry in the courtyard of their house. Sometimes, a flock of goats with bells around their necks would graze on the stony terraces outside their home, just down the hill from a row of terraced Jewish homes.

In Abu Tor, a unique Jerusalem neighborhood where the Jewish West turns into the Arab East with relatively little ado, there was a peaceful if tenuous coexistence.

One morning last month, someone disturbed the peace.

Osama Natsche, husband and father of six children, was stabbed a few steps from his front gate as he left home before dawn for his job as a city sanitation worker. A murder weapon found at the scene indicated that it was probably the work of a still-at-large Jewish serial stabber, on his sixth attack since late 1997.

The news wires said that the murder had taken place in "the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Abu Tor." I wondered how they managed to call Abu Tor, about as integrated as the North and South Sides of Chicago in the 1950s, a mixed neighborhood.

Invisible border

Inside the silence, there was always an invisible border. Here on Naomi Street, there are Jews and Arabs who share the same address but live in different worlds, never connect, and functionally consider themselves part of different countries.

Walking the length of Naomi Street is liking walking across continents. At the turn of a corner, the Hebrew turns to Arabic, the road becomes a bit dilapidated, the buildings look shoddy around the edges, and the women's heads are covered in proper Islamic fashion.

In this land of the invisible border, children play in different schoolyards, adults pray in different houses of worship, and shoppers buy goods mostly from their own. Some of the Arab men, like Mr. Natsche, spend their days working for or with Jewish Israelis, but return home at night to a world that Israelis like to think of as merely Arab but residents see as Palestinian.

Yet, as sharply divided as these two sides of the neighborhood are, there were friendships on an individual level. The Natsches befriended the Dafnis, the Jewish Israeli family who lives downstairs and rents out our apartment to us.

The Dafnis and the Natsches watched each other make additions to their homes, watched the neighborhood grow, and grew to invite one another for visits from time to time. Hamis Natsche, Osama's brother, liked the Dafnis well enough to invite them to his daughter's wedding in Jordan, but then backed off when he realized that his Palestinian relatives could not accept the attendance of Israeli friends at their wedding.

A complicated situation

Running along this street was the former Green Line, which separated Israel from Jordan between 1948 and 1967, when Israel captured the eastern half of the city and later annexed. Abu Tor is a complicated case because, although it highlights the predicament of Arab and Jewish Jerusalem, its Arab half would almost certainly never be part of a Palestinian state, even if its capital were in Jerusalem.

Even if residents there identify themselves as Palestinian and feel mistreated by the Israeli authorities, most want to continue to get the benefits of working and living in Israel. Even if Israelis were to agree to give away some Arab neighborhoods on the periphery of Jerusalem for a Palestinian state, Abu Tor is too close to "home" - West Jerusalem and the Old City - to be considered negotiable.

In this state of things, many residents on both sides of the divide try to live and let live. For the Arab residents, however, lives are not separate but equal. Hanan, Osama's wife, complains that it took half an hour for an ambulance to come get her husband. "If they had stabbed someone Jewish, an ambulance would have come immediately," says Mrs. Natsche in a low voice.

Many of Abu Tor's Jewish residents were upset by the murder of their innocent neighbor. They went knocking on doors to gather volunteers to make a group condolence call to the family, and started a fund to help support Mrs. Natsche and her children.

Dror Dafni came alone, walking down the hill with his son Yaakov. "We sometimes say that if only me and Hamis had to live together, we'd have peace in the Middle East," Mr. Dafni says, sitting in his living room that stands about 200 yards from the Natsche house.

"Our relations haven't changed and it doesn't have to change," Hamis Natsche says. "In all our life we're never seen anything like this happen. We stayed here and they stayed there, and there were no problems. This murder wasn't caused by any of my neighbors, and we know the person who killed him is not from here."

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