Prospect ofpeace brings Jews back into Jerusalem's Old City

October 11, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- For six years the barriers of fear that divide this city had kept Ellen Lefrak from venturing more than a dozen yards inside Jerusalem's Old City.

For most Israeli Jews, this city's greatest treasure was off limits, a place lurking with imagined dangers.

But the prospect of peace made the forbidden fruit too ripe to resist: She took a shopping trip in the "suk," the market swirling with Muslim veils, exotic spices and Arabic. She emerged smiling.

Israeli Jews are beginning to venture into some old Arab haunts they had considered off limits since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising, or "intifada," in 1987.

"Maybe we'll turn into a normal country eventually," said Ms. Lefrak.

It isn't a rush yet, but Arab merchants in the Old City say they have heard more Hebrew in the crowded alleyways since the Israeli-Palestinian accord was signed.

Palestinian attacks on Jews, such as the one Saturday in which two Israelis were killed in a popular hiking area east of Jerusalem, will keep many Israelis cautious.

But others are reweighing the fears that keep them away from the Arab areas of Jerusalem, places they once enjoyed.

"It used to be a great outing to go to the Old City on Saturdays" when Jewish West Jerusalem was closed for the sabbath, said (( Judy Goldstein, 47. "There was no politics, no feeling of fear. We would go down narrow streets and dark alleys without a thought."

She recently went back into the Muslim and Christian quarters because "I was just curious.

"People are starting to go back again," said Mrs. Goldstein, who works at the Israel Museum. "I felt like a tourist, seeing it again. But on another hand, it felt very familiar. I sat in a shop I used to go in, and told the owner, 'It feels nice to be back in your store.' "

Shopkeepers have noticed more Israelis.

"We haven't seen this in a long time," marveled Stephan Karakashian, an artisan who makes ceramic tiles in the Armenian quarter. Some of the merchants view the change with mixed emotions.

"I really can't say how I feel about it," said Ziad Kawas, a Muslim who sells beads and jewelry. Both he and his son had been jailed by Israelis during the intifada, and resentments do not disappear overnight, he said.

But Arab hospitality -- and the prospect of a sale -- take over. As he was speaking, an Israeli family paused at the open door of his shop. Mr. Kawas was all smiles, greeting them in ready Hebrew.

Shekels in hand after the sale of a few beads, he contemplated the transaction.

"They don't come here like they did before, loud and demanding," he said. "Now they are more like chickens: timid, ready to run away."

Jerusalem was divided by a no-man's land between Jordanian and Israeli soldiers until the entire city was captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War. For most of the next 20 years, Jews and Arabs mixed freely in the city, political differences aside.

But the start of the intifada re-erected psychological borders between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem, and between the Jewish quarter and the rest of the Old City.

Most Jews stopped going to the Old City. Those who stayed were mostly extremists: ultra-orthodox Yeshiva students or settlers who carried pistols in their babies' diaper bags. Those who lived in the Jewish Quarter usually came and went by one of the adjoining gates.

Jewish and Christian tourists continued to come in relative safety, with an unwritten understanding that tourists were not a part of the conflict.

Israeli Jews watched them with some envy.

"I get these real pangs of nostalgia for something that's two miles away from me," said Ms. Lefrak, an artist who lives in West Jerusalem.

"We used to sit at the cafes at Jaffa Gate and watch people. I used to wander around the Old City in the middle of the night. No one thought twice about it. We'd go to the Old City after 3 in the morning because we were hungry. We used to get the best bagels in Jerusalem from a Palestinian in the Old City."

Her return visit was medicine for the nostalgia, but not a cure.

"It's not the same now," she said. "Before, there wasn't any fear. Sometimes I walk down the street and feel a flick of mistrust. I'm sure it's mutual, because of the attacks on both sides."

"I don't think people are going to go rushing back in droves," said Mrs. Goldstein. "There still is some fear. I still don't feel the way it was before. But I think it's important that things start to get normal again."

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