Divided city, shared despair

Jerusalem: Two streets highlight the rift between Israelis and Palestinians and the tarnished hopes for peace they hold in common.

October 02, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - On Saladin Street in East Jerusalem, shopkeeper Khalid al-Bakri has taken the leather shoes imported from Italy off the shelves and replaced them with cheap sandals, the only kind many Palestinians here can afford.

Less than a mile across town on West Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, Yossi Oiknine, an out-of-work Israeli tour guide, cautiously drinks an espresso at an outdoor cafe, conscious that he chose a place without a security guard, wondering with every sip whether this coffee will be his last.

One city, two streets - roads to very different aspirations. Saladin is named after the Muslim warrior who helped drive the Crusaders out of Jerusalem in the 12th century; Eliezer Ben Yehuda revived the modern Hebrew language in the 1800s, one of the identifying characteristics of the future Jewish state.

A walk along each quickly makes the effects of three years of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis felt. The Palestinian uprising entered its fourth year Monday, with a death toll of 796 Israelis and 2,233 Palestinians. People along both streets, one in a largely Arab neighborhood, the other in a Jewish neighborhood, are fearful and weary of fighting. They acknowledge that little has been won from the death and destruction. And they don't know how it can ever change.

Their dreams seem as distant as ever. Palestinians are no closer to obtaining the state they want. Israelis feel unsafe in the state they have. The rhetoric on both streets is different, but people are saying the same sorts of things about a wounded economy, encroaching poverty and tarnished hopes.

"We don't bother to put the good products out because we know people won't buy them," said Bakri, 31, who took over his father's shop a year ago and barely breaks even. "We always have hope, but hope is diminishing."

Bakri darts around the small shop showing off his best sellers - toddler-size Harry Potter shoes, which cost about $10, and the $3 sandals, made in the Palestinian city of Hebron, south of Jerusalem. He is a young man who only dreams that he can make enough money to keep the Israeli tax authorities from seizing his store.

"We want quiet, but in reality, we don't know how to achieve it," he said. "Maybe the leaders on both sides have to go. Half of our business came from Israelis and tourists. Now they don't come, and the people who are left don't have jobs."

Oiknine immigrated to Israel from Morocco nearly 30 years ago; his twin brother is a colonel in the army, and two of his sons are in the midst of their three-year mandatory military service, one protecting Jewish settlers in Gaza and another in an elite fighting force in the West Bank. With tourists essentially gone, Oiknine has no work.

He feels conflicted. He approves of separating Palestinians from Israel with a wall and supports the army's hard-line tactics. At the same time, he is proud of a group of air force pilots who announced this week that they would not obey orders to assassinate Palestinian militants. "It shows we have morality," he said.

Oiknine is a religious Jew but says that to make peace he would agree to give up claims to holy sites in the West Bank and pull settlers out of Gaza. Most of all, he wants to be safe.

Yesterday, wanting to get away from the reminders of violence, Oiknine went to a cafe where unguarded tables spilled out onto the walkway - an inviting and easy target.

"For once, I didn't want to see any guns," he said as he relaxed in his chair in his rumpled red-checkered shirt. "I just wanted to sit in the sun and drink my coffee without being afraid. But I don't see a good future."

The Israeli police patrol both streets but are seen differently. On Ben Yehuda, two green-clothed border police officers, a man and a woman, strolled up and down the mall, getting smiles from passers-by grateful for their presence. On Saladin, the blue police jeeps got only scowls. There, Israeli police are reminders of what Palestinians regard as 36 years of occupation. They see Jerusalem as their future capital.

Saladin Street runs through the heart of East Jerusalem and at peak hours is a virtual parking lot of cars and carts and pedestrians spilling off the narrow sidewalks and into the road. Reminders of its upscale past are still evident, with stores selling European fashions and silk scarves. Jewelry stores and money changers work next to fruit stands and flower shops on a road that begins at Herod's Gate of the walled Old City.

Here, Fathaya Faisal sits on a curb under a shade tree selling mint, green peppers and eggplants. She is 45 years old and has 15 people to feed - including her unemployed husband and her two married sons, also out of work. She is nervous because she lives in the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem and is illegally in Jerusalem.

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