Jerusalem: Bargains aplenty, but peace is still at a premium

When paths of Jews and Muslims crisscross in the divided city's stone- paved streets.

In peaceful times, thousands of tourists take a stroll through Jerusalem's Old City every day. They trod along narrow, stone-paved streets through densely built-up enclaves whose names evoke the mix of peoples and religions that give the Middle East its special reputation for holiness and volatility: The Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter.

But these are not peaceful times, so the main thoroughfares of the Old City are largely empty. Some merchants and innkeepers have closed their doors until tensions subside. Clerics tend to shrinking flocks; young Muslim worshippers are barred by Israeli police from the Old City's main mosque, Jews are staying away from the Western Wall for safety's sake, and Christians have cancelled pilgrimages to the supposed sites of Jesus' Crucifixion and Resurrection.

But the walk is no less instructive. Over the weekend I took my daughter, Olivia, and a friend on a ramble through this ancient city, which is ringed by a massive 16th-century stone wall topped by crenelations and pierced by archers' slits.

Covering conflicts requires prudence, but we felt safe. First there was our touristy appearance, and second my press credentials, one in Arabic and another in Hebrew. Toting around Olivia - named in part for the peaceful connotations associated with olive trees - made it clear our purpose was benign.

As in centuries past, the wall keeps estranged peoples in close proximity. A few hours in their midst brings home the in-your-face nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The weekend's news was reasonably notable: The body count in the conflict is now well over 200. President Clinton is still struggling to calm the violence by bringing the leaders of the two sides together in Washington, according to an Israeli radio report. Israel is mourning the passing of Leah Rabin, the widow of the first Israeli premier to shake the hand of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a peace advocate in her own right. But these events probably won't make as lasting an impression on me as what we encountered on our walk, especially the spittle.

We stopped first in a carpet shop in a part of the Christian Quarter called Muristan. Citing his need for cash to pay bills, the Arab merchant quickly dropped the price on a colorful, thickly-woven Bedouin rug from $250 to $50, shouting his final offer as we walked away from his shop. "You won't buy it for $50?" he demanded of us, his voice somewhere between dismay and disgust.

It was a pathetic scene in a land famous for ruthless bargainers. The economic cost of this intifadah, or uprising, is rising fast.

We walked a short distance along David Street, a thoroughfare jammed with tinselly, overstocked shops selling tiny camels carved from olive wood, Palestinian head scarves, and gloriously kitschy pictures of the Last Supper illuminated by pinpoint, battery-powered lights.

One merchant amused himself by squeezing Olivia's pudgy cheeks. There was nothing else to do.

We turned off onto a nearly deserted backstreet, aiming to feel our way through the Armenian Quarter and over to the Western Wall, the most sacred space in Judaism. A young Jewish man, his black fedora riding high on his head and his black suit coat swinging open as he strode down the hill against us encountered an Arab woman removing an empty box from her home.

There was a scuffle, which we didn't see clearly; she may have thrown the box at him. He hit at her and pushed her back. She picked up the box and threatened him with it. They stared each other down for a few seconds.

Then he spat at the ground near her and turned on his heel. She spat back and said something in Arabic that ended with "Jew."

Witnessing these moments can bring one to despair. If they had been cats, I would have wanted to hose them down. But they were people, people with a common heritage, destined to share the same stone streets.

Walking away from the Western Wall, which was unusually quiet and heavily policed, another young Jew passed us as we headed into the Muslim Quarter. He may have been walking toward one of the controversial Jewish-owned houses or institutions in the Muslim area.

Jews often use armed security escorts to make this sort of commute, and I wondered why he was alone, especially in these times.

A minute or so later, we passed him. He was standing still, apparently deciding whether to proceed. Then he turned back toward the Jewish Quarter.

Up ahead, we thought we saw why. A half-dozen young Arab men were gathered at a corner, some of them peering down the street we had just taken. They were talking among themselves and staring after the man with an air of menace.

If the young man had proceeded on his own, there would likely have been an altercation that would have involved more than words and spit.

Night was falling. We turned homeward.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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