Reporter's Diary: Divided Jerusalem

Al Jazeera's Linda Haddad reflects on two peoples divided by 60 years of history.

    Dome of the Rock shines on the day of George Bush's visit to Israel to
    celebrate its 60th anniversary [Linda Haddad]

    For Israelis, the past month has been one of celebration marking 60 years since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.


    Culminating on June 2 with Jerusalem Day, the national holiday commemorates Israel's annexation of the Old City after the Six-Day War, a move declared illegal by the United Nations.

    For Palestinians, it has been a time to remember what they call 'al-Nakba' - The Catastrophe - the creation of Israel that led to the dispossession of their homes and land that continues to this day under the expansion of Israeli settlements.

    Al Jazeera's Linda Haddad travelled to Jerusalem and discovered two peoples divided by 60 years of history.

    I had presumed to be pretty knowledgeable about the conflict which has defined the Middle East for the past 60 years – the occupation, the security issues Israel says it faces and the difficulties Palestinians experience on a daily basis.


    As an Arab-American I have fed myself on a healthy diet of "the Palestinian-Israeli issue" for a long time now. But no news report nor history book can ever fully convey the reality on the ground in Jerusalem.


    Palestinian children wear 1948 tee shirts to
    commmerorate the 'Nakba' [Linda Haddad]
    Here, in the city itself, you begin to absorb the reality of 60 years of conflict in a way you never could from a distance.

    I saw on the taxi ride to my hotel that Israel's celebration were in full swing.


    Israeli flags of white and blue lined the route, hanging from lamp posts, houses and cars.


    The Palestinian Jerusalemites who, at the same time, mark this period as the 60th anniversary of "al-Nakba" -their "catastrophe" - were engulfed in this sea of flags.


    I asked a Hebrew-speaking, Arab taxi driver if he ever felt like hanging a Palestinian flag atop his car.


    Laughing, he told me: "That would be asking for trouble."


    As he drove me around the city, one thing was strikingly clear: the distinction between Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods.


    When you leave the pristine Jewish parts of town, the recycling bins, smoothly paved streets, manicured gardens and public benches give way to potholes and litter, neglected buildings and overflowing rubbish bags – all very basic signs of an unequal and divided people.

    Telling their story


    In Jerusalem's bustling Mahaneh Yehuda market, the site of suicide bombings in 1997 and 2002, Arabs and Jews mingle - young Arab men work alongside Jewish traders and serve mainly Jewish shoppers.


    In this disputed city, the two groups live intimately among each other, but the divisions remain clear.


    What they share, however, is a desire to talk; a need to tell their side of the story to anyone willing to listen.

    Arabs and Jews mingle at the
    Mahaneh Yehuda market [Linda Haddad]

    The Jewish sweetshop owner who initially shied away from talking to me begins little-by-little to open up.


    He wants me to know that he feels at peace among the Palestinians of Jerusalem.

    An old Jewish man, who refused to answer my questions, has a point to make about how the Arab media portray "his people".

    He tells me that my editors will have cartoonists depict him as a "Jewish caricature with a big nose or devil's horns".


    "That is how you Arab media make me look," he says. "If the media covered us the right way, then maybe we would have peace."

    In a way, his words reveal more than I could have hoped to gain from my questioning.

    'Like brothers'


    In the Old City, I sit with a group of workers as they share a watermelon.


    These Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews have worked side-by-side on a large snack-food stall for years.


    "He is like my brother. Better than a brother," one Jewish woman says, pointing to her Muslim colleague.

    They get along well and joke about how they hustle tourists away from competing food stalls, but each has a different opinion on the conflict.

    A Palestinian Christian waiter in the group explains: "It is normal for all of us to have an opinion when it comes to politics. But we still all get along, that should say something to the world."

    Wherever their opinion begins, each ends with the same conclusion: The region's leaders are to blame for the ongoing conflict.

    The whole group agrees that, for those on the ground, peace is achievable, but the peace negotiations are conducted by the wrong people.


    Those leaders do not cross check points, fear suicide bombings or have their houses demolished because they lack necessary permits, they tell me.



    Just a short drive from the tourist sites of the Old City and Manger's Square, the image of Jerusalem changes drastically.

    The 'security wall' - a large, grey, cement block - looms over the Aida refugee camp, where about 5,000 Palestinians live in small, cramped homes.

    Adham, (back, right) and his friends in front
    of the security wall [Linda Haddad]
    "My grandfather lives on the other side," 14-year-old Adham tells me.

    "I don't remember the last time I went to visit him, they [the Israeli authorities] won't give us a permit to leave," he says.

    Before the wall was constructed, Adham used to be able to play with his cousins in the open spaces the refugees say used to be there.

    Diana Ayad's home is directly in front of the wall.


    As she pours me another glass of mint tea - her kindness throughout the day is the definition of Arab hospitality - she shares her frustrations.

    "We are trapped like animals in this refugee camp and what are we supposed to do? Sometimes you feel like exploding."


    Each of the Palestinians I spoke to in Aida refugee camp told me they believed that the wall, the time-consuming and humiliating checkpoints, the house demolitions and land confiscation, were part of a process designed to transfer Palestinian land into Israel's hands.

    For the people here life is gruelling. Simple, everyday tasks can take hours and hope is rapidly fading.


    Diana does not believe she will see peace in her lifetime.


    "My daughter has graduated from college but cannot find a job because it is too difficult for her to find one that pays well and is near," she says.



    As the day draws to an end, I watch some of the children play one of their favourite games - 'Israeli soldier and Arab'.

    Four-year-old Shehad wears traditional
    Palestinian dress
    [Linda Haddad]

    "Palestinian children are unlike any others," a Palestinian colleague tells me.


    "From the moment they are born, they start to talk of politics, occupation and ways to free their homeland."

    "I want to be an English teacher, but my sister is one already, so I will become a doctor," Adham says.

    "This way all of my brothers, sisters and I can be something different and we can all take advantage of each other's trade.


    "My sister can teach me English and I can treat her if she is sick," he says, before returning to play with his friends.


    Watching him play, I remember two fellow Americans I had met in the Old City.


    They told me they were in town to pray for George Bush, the US president, and Israel.

    Proud Christian Zionists, they believed it was a crucial time to throw their support behind the Israeli state, but I wondered if children like Adham would be included in their prayers.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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