Talk of Building a Fence Across `United' Jerusalem
The gulf that separates Arabs and Jews regularly makes headlines. As families in one neighborhood work to build bridges, events intervene.
JERUSALEM — JAMIL SALHUT, a Palestinian writer who lives in the squalid and poverty stricken village of Jebel Mukhaber, has decorated his living room wall with a bumper sticker. It reads "PEACE" in Arabic, English, and Hebrew.
A few hundred yards up the hill, in the smart new Jewish neighborhood of East Talpiot, Judy Segal has hung in her bathroom a reproduction of Pablo Picasso's "Dove and Olive Branch."
Mr. Salhut and Ms. Segal used to meet in each other's homes, with other like-minded neighbors, to talk about coexistence between their two communities.
Now, in the aftermath of a Jewish man's murder on the road that runs between their homes, Jerusalem city and police officials are planning to build a fence that will divide Salhut and Segal.
In a city that Mayor Teddy Kollek has long proclaimed united, the idea of a fence between Arabs and Jews, all living within the city limits, is controversial. A group of Knesset (parliament) members this week petitioned the government to cancel the project.
Construction of the fence, its critics argue, would be an admission of defeat for the official policy that Jerusalem is the united and eternal capital of Israel.
But it would also be a defeat for the small groups of Palestinians and Jews in Jebel Mukhaber and East Talpiot who have fought a losing battle "to create human relations above and beyond political realities," in the words of Shlomo Elbaz, a peace activist from East Talpiot. Fabric tears
Barazani Street, winding along the outside edge of the Jewish neighborhood and bordered by Arab homes, is a seam in Jerusalem's fragile ethnic fabric. Last week, as 28-year-old Yehezkial Mizrachi waited for a bus on Barazani Street, he was stabbed to death by a Palestinian who ran away into Jebel Mukhaber, and the seam unraveled.
Outraged residents of East Talpiot, egged on by outside agitators, attacked Palestinian homes with rocks and bricks, screaming "death to the Arabs." Down the hill, where Jebel Mukhaber was under an Army-imposed curfew, the answering cry of "death to the Jews" echoed in the valley.
Those shouts of hatred were especially distressing to the people on both sides of Barazani Street, who have in the past sought to understand each other in dialogue groups and to make the district a model of good neighborliness. For it was not always like this.
A few years ago, Jewish schoolchildren would leave their urban homes to visit their more rural Arab neighbors, to be shown farm animals and how fields are plowed by hand. Jews and Palestinians tried to set up a weekly market where each community could sell to the other. Jews interceded with the municipality on behalf of Palestinians denied permission to build.
After the intifadah, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, broke out in 1987, a group of Jews and Palestinians began meeting once a month to talk about their problems.
Those dialogues, involving scores of people on either side of the divide over the year or so that they continued, ranged across the whole spectrum of issues that concern residents of Jerusalem, from the prospects for peace in the Middle East to fears about personal safety.
"It was very warm, very open, and there was a real willingness to talk and to share ideas," Segal recalls. "I think both sides found it very exhilarating. It was the first time I had ever sat in an Arab home."
Salhut was equally enthusiastic. "We got to know each other ... and we broke the ice, the wall between the two sides. For our people, it is a good thing to know that there are good Israelis, interested in peace," he says.
Though relatively few people joined the dialogue, its effect was widely felt, Salhut believes. Once, for example, when the Israeli Border Police rounded up scores of youths in Jebel Mukhaber and took them to the top of a hill, Salhut called Jewish members of his dialogue group and asked them to come help get them free.
"They came and argued with the police," Salhut remembers. "The young men saw this, and it changed many minds in the village."
But the meetings petered out after about a year. "When it came to specifics, we each had our private agendas that the other side didn't share," explains Segal, who has lost count of the number of times her windows have been broken by stones thrown by Palestinians across the street.
"They hoped we would stand by their demand for a Palestinian state," she says, "and we were hoping that they would agree to stop the violence, the intifadah, in Jebel Mukhaber."
But for the Palestinians, the intifadah could end only with the end of Israeli occupation. "The Segals are a very good Israeli family who get stoned all the time," Salhut admits. "I am very sorry about this, but it is not a problem of individuals. The problem is the occupation."
City officials acknowledge that the desperate conditions in Jebel Mukhaber are bound to generate despair and anger among the villagers. The roads are pitted and sometimes impassable, there is no garbage collection, no bus service, no health clinic, no post office, no street lighting, no bank.
Even as East Talpiot has burgeoned, the residents of Jebel Mukhaber have been denied planning permission to build a single house for the past 14 years, says Sarah Kaminker, a city councilwoman. The population on the Arab side, however, has swelled enormously. The result: On one side of Barazani Street, people live in modern, comfortably appointed and spacious homes; on the other side of the street, some families are living in caves.
"We confiscated their land, and next to them we built a beautiful new neighborhood with fine roads, schools, lighting, everything, and we left the people in the adjacent neighborhood with nothing," Ms. Kaminker complains. "It's a disgrace."
The details of how and where the proposed fence will be built are still being discussed by city officials; it would seem impossible to keep residents of Jebel Mukhaber out of East Talpiot completely, considering how heavily they depend on the services provided only in the Jewish neighborhood. But the plan itself has illustrated how priorities differ on each side of the divide. Two views of the fence
For Salhut, the fence is "a crazy idea by crazy people," which will not stop the attacks against Jews. "Good neighborliness will happen only when the occupation ends," he insists, and a fence is no substitute for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Segal wants the fence. "We want to go on talking about peace and coexistence," she says. "We are all for good relations and working things out. But we cannot risk being killed in the process. The security situation has to be our first priority."
Mizrachi's murder has brought passions to the boil again in East Talpiot, and even the most ardent peace activists are lying low. "This is not the moment to come up with new proposals," argues Dr. Elbaz, the peace activist. "We have to wait for a calming of the atmosphere."
Even then, he worries, efforts at dialogue will always be vulnerable until peace is negotiated. "You can build a network of relations, of organizations, you can sow the seeds of friendship," Elbaz says, "and then you have an event like the Gulf war, or the deportations, or Mizrachi's murder, and the gap is again deep and unbridgeable."
In Jerusalem's volatile atmosphere, he adds, "there is a discrepancy between the hope and warmth at the human level in our meetings, and the political influence of outside events. There are enough events to destroy in a second what you have built patiently for months and years."
Yet Salhut and Elbaz are both ready to keep trying. For the Palestinian, renewed dialogue with his Jewish neighbors would serve as a foundation for the future. "It's good for what will come after the peace," he says. "I want to change people's feelings, I want to feel a neighbor."
For Elbaz, "there is no alternative. If I didn't hope, if I didn't try, I'd be in danger of concluding, `What am I doing here?' To live here without the prospect of a future would be useless."