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How Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem plays out in one neighborhood

The Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem is playing out in Silwan between Arab residents, religious Jews, and a municipality looking to revitalize its storied global brand.

By Staff writer / September 15, 2010

Fakhri Abu Diab stands on the rubble of his neighbors' demolished house, holding the Israeli demolition letter he received for his own home in late 2009.

Debbie Hill /Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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The second round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under way culminates tonight at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to arrive for further face-to-face negotiations on core issues.

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The meeting’s unusual location underscores Jerusalem’s emergence as not only the thorniest obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace but a defining battleground for sovereignty.

That fight is playing out – between Arab residents, religious Jews, and a municipality looking to revitalize its storied global brand – in the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Silwan. Nestled in the shadow of the Old City walls, Silwan serves as a microcosm of the broader tension between Israeli and Palestinian interests, in which every plot of land is seen not just as home, but a stake in one’s homeland.

Seeking to preserve home – and homeland

Fakhri Abu Diab shuffles out his gate to sweep stray trash and bits of rubble out of the narrow path to his home in the neighborhood.

But that’s about all the enthusiasm he can muster as he prepares to welcome guests. Why? Mr. Diab daily fears his home will be destroyed.

Once inside, he pulls out the Israeli demolition order that arrived on the eve of his daughter’s wedding last fall. Yes, he built without a permit, but he spent 10 years trying in vain to get one.

His home is now one of dozens affected by the Jerusalem municipality’s plans for an archaeological park. Jews and Christians believe the biblical King David once reigned here, and his son Solomon planted trees in the area, known today as King’s Garden.

“Who are more important? The families who live here now, or those 3,000 years ago?” asks Diab.

But for Israeli Jews, whose families endured millenniums of persecution, such efforts to “redeem” Jerusalem involve not just the preservation of holy sites, but the preservation of their nation.

“Jewish history, Jewish roots basically start from two places: the Temple Mount and the City of David,” says Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization that facilitates Jewish development in Jerusalem. “So when we talk about Jerusalem, we’re not talking about some outer neighborhood on the way to Tel Aviv. We’re talking about the places where prophets walked, where kings prayed, where basically the nation of Israel started.”

Why Silwan is on the front line