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Guided tour of Jerusalem turns up reminders of Mideast tension
By Steven Gutkin, Associated Press, 08/24/02
JERUSALEM -- Archaeologist Yusuf Natsheh tried to approach Islam's third holiest site on Saturday to show a group of foreigners the Arabic calligraphy at the gate leading to the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
But Israeli security forces interrupted him, took his identity card and ordered him and the foreigners to leave.
"This is the state of Israel. Speak Hebrew!" barked an Israeli policeman as Natsheh tried to explain in Arabic that he posed no threat.
What was supposed to be a quiet guided tour of Jerusalem organized by a Palestinian university Saturday turned into a lesson on the bitterness and tensions that reign in the city in the wake of failed peace talks and a two-year Palestinian uprising.
Chanting from mosques and the ringing of church bells permeated the air, as did smells from a thousand spices and freshly killed meat hanging from hooks. Orthodox Jews in prayer shawls walked down narrow alleys lined by souvenir shops where there were no customers to purchase the Holy Land paraphernalia.
"There are no people, no tourists, no work," said 23-year-old merchant Ashraf Abusnene. "If business doesn't get better, we will close the shop."
Abusnene said the current Mideast crisis is making life impossible for Palestinians, and said he sees no hope for peace.
"Let there be Hell. I don't care anymore," he said.
Natsheh, the archaeologist, recalled a more peaceful time when as a child he and his grandmother frequented that same market to buy their produce.
"She always knew how to pick the best fruit," he said.
Natsheh led a three-hour tour of east Jerusalem's markets Saturday -- part of a program by the Al-Quds university titled "Jerusalem: A Palestinian Perspective."
The tour was supposed to be about markets -- spice markets, olive oil markets, meat markets, textile markets -- not politics.
But Huda Imam, managing director of the Al Qud's University Center for Jerusalem Studies, couldn't keep back her anger when the 12-person tour walked past a house owned by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The house -- in the middle of the Old City's Muslim Quarter -- is draped by a huge Israeli flag.
"It is a provocative action," Imam said.
Jerusalem -- holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike -- is one of the issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967 after capturing it from Jordan in a war started by its neighbors that year.
The latest Palestinian uprising -- or intefadeh -- erupted two years ago after U.S.-sponsored peace talks broke down and Sharon, while still an opposition politician, visited the area known as the Temple Mount, which houses the Dome of the Rock. The visit outraged Palestinians.
Some have blamed the current cycle of violence on the Palestinians' rejection of an Israeli peace offer two years ago that would have ceded large parts of Jerusalem to a future Palestinian state -- a gesture few had imagined Israel would be willing to make.
On the streets of Jerusalem, however, thoughts are not about lost opportunities of the past but about the miseries of today.
The 200,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens but as permanent residents are given health benefits, welfare and pensions.
That makes their financial situation less desperate than that of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where the economy has ground to a halt and where many residents are confined to their homes because of Israeli measures designed to halt suicide bombings.
But Imam, of the Center for Jerusalem Studies, said she believes the Palestinians of east Jerusalem are the "most pressured" by Israeli occupation -- living in a city where emotions always run high.
A T-shirt on sale in one shop showed cartoon characters laughing hysterically with the words: "Peace in the Middle East."
Hebrew graffiti on some Old City buildings read, "Kahane was right" -- referring to the Jewish extremist Meir Kahane, who before his slaying in 1990 had advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.
Jerusalem resident Omar Saed said he just wanted the violence to end.
"We don't hate anyone. We don't want to lose our children and we don't want them (the Israelis) to lose their children, either," he said.