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The struggle for Jerusalem

A holy city still divided

Forty years after the war that gave Israel full control of Jerusalem, the dream of a united city remains merely that. Jews and Arabs live bitterly apart, their schism one of the key obstacles to peace.

June 03, 2007|Ken Ellingwood and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

Jerusalem — AS a young paratrooper 40 years ago, Moshe Amirav felt the unmistakable touch of history.

Ignoring a minor head wound suffered in the capture of East Jerusalem from Jordanian forces, Amirav raced through the winding lanes of the Old City to join jubilant fellow soldiers at the Western Wall.

It was June 7, 1967. Overcome with the sense that God had finally brought the Jews home, he scribbled "Shalom," or peace, on a slip of paper and tucked it between the iconic stones.

"I said to myself, 'No matter what happens to you in your life, you'll never have such a moment of ecstasy again,' " recalled Amirav, now a 61-year-old scholar.

Just over a mile from the Western Wall that day, Ibrahim Dakkak, a Palestinian builder, also felt the tug of history. Shocked and bewildered, he huddled with his family under their kitchen table and listened to the sound of combat. Fearful of being discovered by Israeli troops, Dakkak's wife muffled the cries of their year-old son by cramming a tomato into his mouth.

Dakkak emerged to a region transformed. Israel had captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula.

After 19 years in which the city they call Al Quds had lain sharply divided -- Jews on the west, Arabs on the east -- Palestinians faced the prospect of Israeli rule.

"I felt defeated," said Dakkak, now 78.

Jerusalem was totally under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years. Israeli leaders vowed that the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims would remain the "eternal and undivided" capital of the Jewish state.

Forty years later, Israel's vision of a unified Jerusalem under its control remains illusory. Long after the removal of the barbed-wire fences that bisected it in 1967, the city remains bitterly divided between Jews and Arabs. The war has evolved into a battle of attrition over land and identity.

In daily life, Jews and Arabs inhabit side-by-side worlds. Palestinians feel hemmed in by Israeli rule over their East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Jews in West Jerusalem, though victimized by numerous suicide bombings, in quiet times maintain the rhythms of a normal existence: schools, shopping and trips to the park. Disparities in living conditions are glaring. The two sides also have separate professional associations and cultural institutions, and contrasting visions of the future.

Many Jews here and in the diaspora are passionate about holding on to all of Jerusalem. But in Israel, others have become ambivalent and are uncomfortable with the policies their government pursues to keep control. Polls show a majority of the country favors concessions to the Palestinians if that would lead to peace.

Meanwhile, as Israel has consolidated its hold on the land, the city's population has gradually become more Arab and less Jewish. Thousands of less devout Jews leave Jerusalem each year, many of them alienated by a growing ultra-Orthodox minority that controls City Hall and often insists on stricter observance of Jewish religious law.

Palestinians are scrambling to move into the city as they watch Israel build a barrier it says is needed to keep out suicide bombers. Palestinians say the barrier cuts off East Jerusalem, which they envision as their future capital, from the West Bank.

The status of Jerusalem remains one of the biggest obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement. The issue was a major stumbling block at the Camp David talks of 2000, even after Ehud Barak, then Israel's prime minister, broke an Israeli taboo simply by discussing it.

An agreement to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel also would require accommodation on many other difficult topics, including the fate of Palestinian refugees and the shape of the borders. But serious negotiations, much less an accord, appear remote for now. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government is weak. The rise of the militant group Hamas has left the Palestinian Authority in disarray. Violence between the two sides continues.

In the absence of peace, Israel and the Palestinians jostle for advantage, reshaping the holy city and further diminishing chances for an agreement. New "facts on the ground" are planted each day.

A delayed victory

BEFORE Israel's independence in 1948, Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine were in British hands. Heavy immigration had made Jews a majority in the city decades earlier, and by 1948 they accounted for 60% of its population.

The United Nations had envisioned Jerusalem under international control as part of the world body's plan to carve Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. But war erupted at the time of Israeli independence, and the resulting armistice left the city split. West Jerusalem was a narrow thumb of land jutting into the Jordanian-controlled West Bank.

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