Jerusalem: It’s tense, crowded and can feel like a jail

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Israeli border police officers responding to a disturbance in the Muslim Quarter after Friday prayers. (photo: Uriel Sinai / The New York Times)

This is a tense city on a good day.

By David Halbfinger | The New York Times | Dec 9, 2017


“There’s a big religion problem in Jerusalem. It’s a city of racism. Once there’s a little bit of balagan [chaos] between Jews and Arabs, Jews won’t go in my taxi, and Arabs won’t go to the mall. And if I go into a religious neighborhood and they find out I’m Arab, they’ll stone my car. . . . There will never be peace here. If they take all the Arabs away, the Jews would eat each other. And the same thing with us.”
— Jerusalem taxi driver Muhammad Ziada


You feel it behind the wheel: The traffic signals turn red and yellow to alert a coming green. Hesitate a half-second before accelerating? A honking horn. Schoolgirls gesture at motorists as they step into a crosswalk, fingertips bunched and faces scowling: Will you wait, or what?

You see it in the crowding: Overstuffed apartments spilling onto one another, in teeming Palestinian neighborhoods, and in ghetto-like ultra-Orthodox enclaves, a few blocks apart on either side of the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary with the West Bank.

You hear it in the way people talk — “The Arabs,” “The Jews” — about people with whom they have been sentenced to share a tiny patch of soil atop a ridge with no strategic value, over which the world has been battling for thousands of years, and negotiating on and off for decades, with no end in sight.

The world knows Jerusalem by the Old City and its Golden Dome, its ancient wall from the time of Herod, its Holy Sepulcher, its rough-hewed stones flattered by brilliant sunlight.

But Jerusalem is not just its postcard vistas. A pilgrimage is not the same as living here. The day-in, day-out friction can be draining. And when the conflict bubbles up, even natives can question why they persist.

“We all believe there’s something sacred in this city, but it’s too difficult,” said Tomer Aser, 35, who lives in Beit Hanina, in East Jerusalem. “You feel like you’re living in jail here. The people are so tense. And you feel yourself separated: You have to be with either the Israeli community or the Arab community. There’s no difference — we’re one country — but it’s Israeli Arabs, or Palestinians, or Israeli Jews.”

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