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The trickiest issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks get under way in Washington, the largely Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem shows the intensifying battle for control of the city.

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But he has been dreading the day his daughters start school this fall.

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He hopes that when he comes to the part of the school application that asks for an address, he won’t have to write again: “Under an olive tree.”

“To lose your house means you lose security – you lose everything,” Mr. Hanoun says, ducking beneath the visor of his New York Yankees hat to hide tears. “My two daughters, they get so mad because we don’t have any address.”

He had tried to appeal to international leaders, plastering his house with a big sign that said, "Mr. Obama, please help if you can."

"But I see you can't," he says, recounting the day Israeli police came and tore it down before his eviction.

Arieh King worries about his homeland

While Hanoun is worried about his home, Arieh King – one of the most prominent Jewish activists in Sheikh Jarrah – is concerned about homeland.

On a recent morning, he pulled his scooter up to a curb near Sheikh Jarrah and began a tour of the area, which he refers to by the historical Jewish names of Nahalat Shimon and Shimon HaTzedik.

Donning a soft-brimmed hat and wraparound sunglasses, he looks more like a safari guide than the founder and director of the Israel Land Fund, one of several groups spearheading the “redemption” of Jewish property in Jerusalem.

His sandaled feet pause in front of a massive black gate labeled only in French, “Tombeau des Rois.” The Tomb of the Kings is a sacred Jewish burial ground obtained by France in the late 1800s, though the exact circumstances of the transaction are fuzzy.

Mr. King says France’s custody of the site was conditional on keeping it holy, providing free access to Jews, and displaying signs – including in Hebrew – about the nature of the site.

“Today, nobody has access here,” he says, throwing his weight back against the imposing black gate that rattles under his force. “This is a symptom of what’s going on in East Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is part of our body and it should be the heart of every Jew,” he adds, noting that devout Jews pray facing Jerusalem three times a day and see the city as the heart of a country that is their sole guarantee of survival as a people. “If you want to cut the heart of Jerusalem, you are wanting to kill Jews."

Not a universally shared point of view

But not all Israelis share King’s point of view. In fact, Sheikh Jarrah has become a rallying point for Israel’s beleaguered left wing. Every Friday since late 2009, Israeli protesters have met in the neighborhood – any easy walk from west Jerusalem – to make their disapproval of Israeli policies felt and to show solidarity with the families.

Hanoun says he and his family are buoyed by the weekly demonstrations, which they often attend.

“We’re staying close to let our message be heard around the world,” he says.

Dina Goldstein – a soft-spoken Israeli Jew who spent many nights last year sleeping on a spare mattress at the family’s home with other activists in a failed bid to prevent their eviction – says that while the affair has been a real trial for the Hanouns, their support for each other has been touching.

“They are such a gentle, loving, close family,” she said after an Aug. 6 protest marking one year since their eviction. “Despite this whole continuous nightmare, that’s the one thing that no one can take away from them.”