The real estate agent who showed me my apartment pointed out the views of Mount Zion, ringed by cypress trees, and the walled Old City with its minarets and church spires piercing the blue Jerusalem sky. But she neglected to say that the apartment had a drawback: its proximity to hell. A few hundred paces downhill, and you are in the Valley of Hinnom, where Muslims, Jews and Christians all believe that on Judgment Day, the gates of hell will open up as sinners go tumbling into the flaming vortex.
Living on the edge of hell, I could deal with. (I even thought it might entitle me to a discount on the rent. No chance.) Besides, Hinnom is deceptively pastoral; down in the valley I often see a white stallion grazing under an ancient olive tree. But I wasn't prepared for the living hell inside my neighborhood, Abu Tor. Here, Arabs and Israelis live next door to each other yet are divided by mutual fear and suspicion.
Over years of strife, Jerusalem's Arab and Israelis have perfected their radar for telling each other apart and for knowing when they've strayed too far into hostile territory. Every morning, I watch an Arab worker quicken his pace as he traverses to the Israeli side of my street. He lowers his eyes to the pavement to avoid trouble from Israeli cops who are frequently waiting there, checking IDs. On Hebron Road, he flags down a cramped, Arabs-only bus because if he boarded one of the big, air-conditioned Israeli ones, passengers might think he was a suicide bomber. For their part, Israelis avoid the Arab side of Abu Tor. A Jewish-American widow who lives in the apartment building next door won't venture to the Arab-owned corner shop just 100 yds. (about 90 m) away, no matter how badly she needs a cigarette. And Abu Tor is no different from any other mixed neighborhood in the city; a survey last year found two-thirds of Israeli Jews would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab. Given the choice, most Arabs would mirror such a preference.
When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sit down with other Arab leaders and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a forthcoming Middle East summit in Annapolis, Md., the future of Jerusalem, a city holy to three religions, will be a constant shadow over the negotiations. Palestinians have long demanded that the eastern part of the city should be the capital of the state of which they have dreamed for decades. For Jews, who pined 2,000 years for Jerusalem, victory in the Six-Day War of 1967--and with it, control over the whole city--was a moment for the ages. And for 40 years, all who have negotiated for an end to the hostility between Israelis and Palestinians have known that the question of Jerusalem would have to be settled one day.
In 2000 President Bill Clinton, as part of a set of "parameters" he laid out for ending the conflict, proposed a legal split of the city, with Israel handing the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem over to Palestinian rule. Such a formula presupposes that Jerusalem is capable of a neat division. But it is not. Somehow, any separation of the city into component parts has to recognize that there are myriad economic and cultural links among political adversaries. Moreover, the monuments and shrines of the Old City attract visitors from all over the world: Muslims who want to worship at al-Aqsa Mosque; Jews seeking to pray at the Western Wall; Christians keen to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or follow the Stations of the Cross. Try as one might, it is not possible to count out the lanes of the Old City so that each of them is controlled by only one faith, one ethnicity. (Clinton proposed "shared functional sovereignty" for the Old City.) Dividing Jerusalem, says Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer and expert on Jerusalem affairs, is "a political impossibility and a historical inevitability. It will take microsurgery, and I'm afraid the politicians will go at it with a hatchet."
Hummus And Dead Sharks
Hatchets and bludgeons won't do the job of remaking Jerusalem into two capitals--for though the city is crisscrossed by a thousand invisible lines that separate the lives of Arabs and Israelis, those lines can be porous, allowing a current of people and influences to flow back and forth. Upper-class Arab women cross westward for Pilates classes or to go shopping, and Israelis venture into the Old City for tasty hummus and a puff on a narghile. One recent Friday, a procession of black-coated ultra-Orthodox Jews hurrying through Damascus Gate toward the Western Wall ran into a crowd of prayer-going Arabs. They all stopped to gape at a large, dead shark hanging from a hook outside a butcher's shop. It was one of those fleeting moments when Arabs and Jews forgot their differences and stared in awe at one of God's truly scary creatures. But it doesn't take much--a stabbing in the Old City, a riot or an explosion--for the lines of this invisible grid to seal up. Then the Holy City splits in two.
It's been that way since the start of the al-Aqsa intifadeh, the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that raged from 2000 until 2002, when Israelis started closing off the Palestinian territories. "The intifadeh was like a centrifuge that flung Arabs and Jews apart," says Seidemann. For Arabs in the city, the divisions have exacerbated the bitterness of 40 years of Israeli rule. Through a combination of purposeful neglect by Israelis and a refusal by Arabs to deal with municipal authorities (doing so might compromise the phantom sovereignty of Palestine, Arab leaders say), the eastern side of Jerusalem is withering like an unhealthy Siamese twin.
That is all too obvious in my neighborhood. On the Israeli side of Abu Tor, there are parks and flowers and streetlights and the garbage gets collected. A blind man can tell where the Arab street begins by the potholes and the smell--there, by contrast, garbage is picked up only if the neighbors pay out of their pockets for a truck to come and haul it away. The kids play in the streets because they have few parks to go to. Some of my Israeli friends are aghast when I tell them where I live; it seems that Abu Tor's Arabs have a reputation for stealing everything: cars, bicycles, even dogs. This is partly because the Israelis have stuff to steal and the Arabs don't. But theft is also a way of striking back at Israelis. "When I walk through their streets, I feel jealousy. The Israelis have everything for their children and we have nothing for ours," says Ahmed Abu Saloum, a theater director. Recently his teenage son was stopped by undercover police and ordered to remove his hat. Saloum says his son replied, "'Why? It's a democratic country.'" Then, alleges the director, "the police took him away and beat him. His body was so bruised, he looked like a tomato."