Two worlds side by side in Jerusalem neighborhood

Killings, divisions test coexistence of Israelis, Palestinians

February 24, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The promenade snakes around the edge of a cliff in the neighborhood called Abu Tor, skirting woods known as the Peace Forest and spacious homes with postcard views of the walled Old City and the deep Hinnom Valley.

It is a neighborhood divided between Israelis living in one enclave and Palestinians in another. The stone walkway is where the two peoples sometimes mingle and where tourists come for the views.

And here, Moran Amit, a 25-year-old university student strolling in the woods with her boyfriend, was chased down and stabbed to death Feb. 11. Police blamed a 14-year-old Palestinian resident of Abu Tor, and shot and killed him as he tried to flee.

The killing and its violent aftermath are putting the idea of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence to the test in a neighborhood where that ideal is rarely met but often extolled. The walkway, looking down on the Old City, has become yet another place people are afraid to visit.

"I know we live in difficult times," said Ronny Perlman, 57, who lives in Abu Tor and organized a memorial march Feb. 15 to honor Amit and reclaim the park. "I just want this place to be a place of peace."

Her best efforts fell short. Perlman wanted to lead her entourage down a steep road and into the Palestinian side of Abu Tor, but police, fearing a clash, cautioned against it. About 100 Abu Tor residents participated in the march, but only five were Palestinian. Other Palestinians told Perlman they were too angry with police for shooting Samir Abu Miala in the back to join a sympathy parade for the young woman.

Abdel Nasser Mohammed, 33, a Palestinian who was walking along the promenade after the march, learned about the event from a discarded pamphlet. "To be frank, I have had no reason to participate," he said. "It's not hard for me to show my sympathy for the young woman who got stabbed, but where is the sympathy for the Palestinian child who was killed?"

Until the late 1800s, only shepherds and their flocks of sheep and goats frequented Abu Tor. Then, well-to-do Arab families built stone houses with views of Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City. In 1948, after the first Arab-Israeli war, the neighborhood was divided between Israel and Jordan, controlling West and East Jerusalem, respectively. The Arab residents fled the part within Israel, and Israelis moved in.

Israel gained control over all of the city, and all of Abu Tor, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. About half of the neighborhood - including the grand stone houses - was Israeli, the other half Palestinian.

Invisible dividing line

Abu Tor is one of the few mixed communities in Jerusalem. But Palestinians and Israelis, though they share the neighborhood, live in almost separate worlds, segregated by an invisible line that the conflict has turned into a virtual wall.

Outside their homes is the Hinnom Valley, a deep ravine lined by small villages where goats still graze. Centuries before Christ, some believe, pagans sacrificed children here, and its name became synonymous with hell. The Israelites later turned the valley into a burning trash dump, which included corpses of executed criminals.

Now, the valley is known as a tranquil oasis, an escape from the downtown Jerusalem traffic jams, the bombings and the other attacks that have become routine.

Amit and her boyfriend were in the Peace Forest when they were confronted by a gang of young boys, according to police. The two Israelis ran, each in a different direction, believing the boys would chase the man.

But they went after Amit, who limped. Police said they killed her in a clump of bushes.

Police arrived and chased Samir, who collapsed as he ran. Authorities initially said they did not know why he died. An autopsy attended by a Palestinian doctor found a gunshot wound in his buttocks. The deaths make it all the harder for moderate voices among Palestinians or Israelis to be heard.

Amit grew up on a kibbutz and volunteered in campaigns for Palestinian rights and statehood. Her boyfriend was a member of the activist group Peace Now.

Amit's best friend, Sari Almoug Levi, 25, joined the afternoon procession along the promenade but was having a tough time with its message, though she shares similar views. "I'm trying to fight the hate," she said. "I'm trying to fill my heart with love and compassion, but it's hard."

Henry Wel thinks the group of boys who stabbed Amit attacked him last month. He was stabbed four times while walking through the Peace Forest.

"It should be possible to live together, said Wel, 64. "It's not easy with all this hatred. It's very complicated, and I don't have a solution. But I don't think we should give up."

Virtually every Israeli on the solidarity walk expressed similar sentiments, but coexistence seems almost impossible. When Lynda Waxman moved to Abu Tor 10 years ago, a Palestinian neighbor invited her in to talk. "It wouldn't happen now," she said, pausing in a futile attempt to name a single Palestinian friend. "I wouldn't go into that side of the neighborhood."

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