Living in Jerusalem's Two Cities

A journalist shuttles between Palestinian and Jewish worlds that touch, but rarely connect. TRAVEL: ISRAEL

FROM the balcony of our rented apartment, my wife and I have a view of Jerusalem any innkeeper would covet. It is a panorama that stretches from Jaffa Gate, along the western wall of East Jerusalem's Old City and past Mt. Zion before trailing off into the Judean wilderness far below. Twenty-five years ago, when Jordan governed East Jerusalem, the narrow valley that runs between our balcony and the Old City was a virtual no-man's land separating hostile armies.

Today, a different kind of line divides East and West Jerusalem. Psychological rather than physical, it still gives definition to this city that, like an unbroken horse, has always managed to make life uncomfortable for its rider. Ask any Turk, any Briton, any Arab, or now, any Israeli.

What strikes a foreigner most is that living in Jerusalem is like living in two cities at once. Even though Jewish neighborhoods have expanded rapidly into the Arab half of the city since it was annexed by Israel in 1967, Arabs and Jews, with their different languages, different religions, and competing claims to sovereignty, have simply failed to merge into a cohesive community.

Since the start of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) in 1987, Israel's dream of creating a truly united Jerusalem has disappeared in a cloud of tear gas. While this makes for interesting news reporting, it also makes day-to-day living a bit complicated.

Routine becomes adventure

Take driving from Jewish West to Arab East Jerusalem, for example. A routine trip to purchase fresh vegetables or visit the money-changer can become a small adventure if an intifadah-related ``incident'' develops between Palestinian youths and Israeli police. Suddenly, stores will close and roadblocks will appear. Just as quickly, car windows are rolled up, a red-checkered Arab kaffiyeh (headscarf) is arrayed on the dashboard to buy protection from stonings, and seat belts are unlatched to permit a quick exit in case a gasoline bomb is tossed.

It's all part of life in the midst of the low-level communal warfare of the uprising.

More telling is the emotional adjustment required to make the ten-minute drive from the lively caf'es along the pedestrian mall on Ben Yehuda street in West Jerusalem to the squalid refugee camps tens of thousands of Palestinians call home on the outskirts of East Jerusalem.

The divisions are even felt by natives. Journalists and diplomats typically have two sets of friends, one Arab and one Jewish, who can be mixed at social gatherings only with the greatest care.

As problematical as life under the intifadah can be for foreigners, it takes on a deeper dimension for Israelis. Recently my wife attended a concert in the Old City, accompanied by a close Israeli friend and her two teenage daughters. As they approached Jaffa Gate, for the first time since the start of the uprising, their anxiety became palpable.

Before the intifadah, coming to the Old City to barter with Arab merchants for rugs or food was part of their normal routine. With audible sighs they now wonder if they will ever again feel free to visit this coveted prize of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war without fearing for their safety.

Our friends aren't the only sign that things have changed: Few Israeli taxi drivers will take passengers even to the main commercial streets of East Jerusalem. And virtually no Palestinians except day laborers regularly cross from East to West.

Despite the evident tensions, Jerusalem is an exotic and stimulating place to live - and still a safe place for tourists to visit. It took months to get used to the idea that some of the most famous place names in history - the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, the Temple Mount - were literally within walking distance.

Ultimately, the experience of living abroad is shaped by people. Israelis born in Israel are known as ``sabras,'' which is the Hebrew word for a particular fruit-bearing cactus. The coincidence is apt since, like the cactus, Israelis tend to be prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. Like their Palestinian neighbors, Israelis can be warm and devoted friends who will go to the greatest lengths to be helpful.

As for the Palestinians themselves, they invented hospitality, which they somehow manage to demonstrate even in the midst of the intifadah.

Anger - and unfeigned courtesy

Several months ago, three Western reporters returned from appointments in the West Bank city of Hebron to find every window in their car shattered - a common fate for cars bearing telltale yellow Israeli license tags. While we were cleaning up the debris, several Palestinians - the very same who had smashed the windows, we surmised - rushed up to offer hot cups of Turkish coffee. In the curious logic of the Middle East, there was nothing incompatible about the anger directed toward this symbol of Israel and the unfeigned courtesy shown to those who drove it.

Even with all its variety, after an extended period tiny Israel can prove slightly claustrophobic.

Reporters and diplomats can solve that problem in a way Israelis can't: by traveling to the Arab countries next door.

The dry detail that Israel and its neighbors have remained ``technically'' in a state of war since 1967 takes on a new meaning at the Allenby bridge, the main border crossing between Israel and Jordan.

The distance between Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan's capital, is a mere 50 miles. But getting across the rickety wooden bridge that spans the Jordan River can be a tortuously long process, with a dozen passport checks and delays often lasting several hours.

Arriving once at the border after closing hours, I waited for nearly an hour as Israeli and Jordanian soldiers stood in the middle of the bridge, on their respective sides of one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, and heatedly debated whether I should have the privilege of crossing.

Circuitous air travel

Getting to other nearby Arab capitals can take as long as a trip to Tokyo since, except for Egypt, no flights link Israel and the Arab world. Reporters racing from Israel to a breaking story in Syria, for example, often have to fly to Rome or Athens to pick up a connecting flight to Damascus, only 40 miles from Israel's border.

And once out of Israel it is impossible to call, wire, telex, or even mail a postcard back to Israel - or vice versa. During long weeks on the road, my wife and I could speak only through messages transmitted back and forth by my editors in Boston. (As wonderful as my editors are, it's not quite the same thing.)

Perhaps the hardest part of being a reporter in the region is the constant feeling of being in the middle, of being in the crossfire between two peoples toward whom, after three years, we have come to feel such great affection.

On hearing of a pending trip to Damascus or Baghdad, my Israeli friends voice the gravest concern for my safety. To them I explain that my Arab acquaintances are, well, just about like people anywhere and that I travel in their midst in complete safety.

To my Arab auditors who invariably wish to learn what the feared Israelis are ``really like,'' I offer the same assurances.

If anything, the psychological gap between Arabs and Jews is most tragic in Jerusalem, where the opportunities for understanding provided by physical proximity have been forfeited because of fear and suspicion.

We move back and forth in this divided city as between two countries - as between two worlds that touch but rarely connect.

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