A Jerusalem street that bridges and divides
JERUSALEM // On a warm day in late May, the doorbell to David Maeir-Epstein’s Jerusalem home rang. It was the Bazlamit kids from across the street. They wanted to retrieve a red ball they said had bounced on to Mr Maeir-Epstein’s roof.
It was a normal exchange between neighbours, but one that belies the fact that the event that made it possible has deepened the divide between their respective nations for the past five decades.
Before 1967, Israel controlled the west side of Assaell Street where Mr Maeir-Epstein, an American-Israeli, lives, and Jordan the east side where his Palestinian neighbours, the Bazlamits, live. The border was marked by looping barbed wire.
Crossing the road, even to find an errant ball, was a risky endeavour. Israeli and Jordanian snipers kept watch over the street where children now play, quick to shoot anyone who snuck over the line.
Fifty years ago this month, Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, later annexing the territory in a move opposed by virtually every other nation.
The war quite literally hit home for families in the area.
Adel and Laila Siam delayed their wedding for a year when their marital home caught fire in a Jerusalem battle five days before the ceremony, destroying the Palestinian couple’s new bed. When they finally married, the couple slept on the floor until they could afford a new bed.
On the other side of the border, Israeli Yaacov Davidian, who was a child in 1967, recalled fleeing to safety four blocks away, only to return home the next day to a changed reality.
After the war, the barbed wire came down, the street was eventually paved, and neighbours on either side of the border met each other for the first time.
With Israelis and Palestinians living in such close proximity, Assaell Street is unlike any other place in Jerusalem.
Because of this, the street has drawn foreigners – aid workers and journalists alike – who wish to live on the fault line of the conflict. One journalist, Dion Nissenbaum, even wrote a book about Assaell in 2015 entitled A Street Divided.
Today, while there is no physical barrier along Assaell, the 275-metre street is still divided.
For the most part, Israelis live on one side and Palestinians on the other. Their children go to separate schools.
50 years of Israeli occupation
■ Editorial: Five decades of occupation
■ Comment: The 1967 war and the injustices that persist
On the Israeli side of the street, a mezuzah or traditional Hebrew prayer scroll hangs from a doorway. On the Palestinian side, a concrete wall is painted with crescents and stars, celebrating a Muslim’s return from Haj.
According to Nissenbaum’s book, similar markings were once the cause of a local dispute when members of the Bazlamit family put them on an Israeli neighbour’s wall. The Israeli demanded the municipality paint over them, and woke up the next day to find her car tyres slashed.
On a late spring day, the street – where honeysuckle and pink bouganvillea grow wild – is a lively place. A Palestinian boy plays a drum on the asphalt in billowing trousers, waiting for his father to take him to perform at a wedding. A woman in a car with a United Nations Development Programme number plate drives into a garage on the Israeli side. A tour group from a nearby synagogue learns the history of the street that was once an international border as cats meander by.
Amid the comings and goings are small signs of cooperation.
Mr Maeir-Epstein, who moved to Assaell Street almost 12 years ago, has initiated several projects between Israelis and Palestinians in the broader Abu Tor neighbourhood with his wife, Alisa, including language classes, children’s football teams, a women’s group and the beautification of a local park.
“What’s really important here is that unlike most coexistence projects, it is not based on dialogue,” said Mr Maeir-Epstein, who represents Abu Tor and another neighbourhood on the board of a local community council. “Our project is the identification of common needs, common concerns and common organising to achieve together the improvement of the situation we both are commonly dealing with.”
The two sides of the street have recently joined forces to oppose a planned luxury housing project at one end of the street, in a compound owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.
But some people are sceptical of the cooperation.
Mr Davidian derided the park beautification project for bringing Palestinians into the Israeli side of the neighbourhood. “We are Jewish here,” he said. “We should be first for the Jewish area. Don’t make the Abu Tor Jewish area like the Arab area.”
Assaell, which straddles Jewish Abu Tor and Palestinian Abu Tor, is a microcosm of the broader disparities in Jerusalem.
Palestinians on Assaell complain that they have difficulty getting permits to build or expand their homes, and then are penalised for constructing without Israeli permission.
In contrast, according to Nissenbaum’s book, an Israeli building project on the street was easily approved.
Ahmad Gazawi, a 55-year-old Palestinian who has hosted Israelis at his home for coffee as part of a casual Israeli-Palestinian social group, said the city discriminates between the people in Jerusalem, showing that “in reality it is not united” as Israeli officials claim.
Even so, sitting on his porch 50 years after the barbed wire border was swept away, he was optimistic about what Assaell Street could teach Israelis and Palestinians about being good neighbours.
“I hope Assaell Street will be a symbol for living in peace together,” he said.
As far as the Bazlamits’ red ball is concerned, the children eventually did find it, when Mr Maeir-Epstein invited one of them to climb on to his roof.
Updated: June 5, 2017 04:00 AM