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JERUSALEM-NEIGHBORHOOD Jun-4-2008 (990 words) With photos. xxxi

Recalling Six-Day war, resident says Jerusalem remains divided

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- In his office in bustling Arab East Jerusalem, within walking distance of his childhood home behind the Old City's ancient walls, Wassef Daher recalls the day 41 years ago when Jordanian tanks retreated and he saw Israeli tanks rolling into his East Jerusalem neighborhood.

"At first we thought the tanks belonged to Arab armies coming in from the East," recalled Daher, 68, a Catholic and the owner of Daher Travel Agency. For two decades, Jordan had controlled East Jerusalem, and Daher said he and his neighbors soon realized the encouraging news reports they received on the first days of the Six-Day War were untrue.

Daher and his friends had not expected Jordan to be a combatant in the 1967 war in which Israel made a pre-emptive strike at its Arab neighbors, who had pledged to destroy the fledgling Jewish state. Daher's young family found itself in the middle of the war zone with bullets and bombs exploding around their home. They spent most of the time hiding in the basement of their building with their two neighbors.

Fearing that he would be killed during the fighting, Daher wrote out a will detailing how he wanted his son to be raised. He still keeps the piece of paper stored in his home.

There were no phones then and Daher's parents and siblings, who lived in the Old City where there was no fighting, could not communicate with the family stuck in the midst of the battle.

The day the tanks rolled into East Jerusalem is the day Palestinians say they came under occupation; the Israelis, on the other hand, celebrate it annually according to the Jewish lunar calendar as the day of the reunification of Jerusalem as their "united and undivided capital."

This year Israel marked the anniversary with a series of events June 1-5. Israelis converged on Jerusalem for concerts, parades, student programs, commemorative ceremonies and walking tours through downtown and the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, waving large Israeli flags.

Like many other Palestinians and liberal Israelis, Daher sees the nationalistic atmosphere of the celebration as a "provocation."

"Jerusalem has remained divided politically, socially and nationally," said Daher. "Celebrating this (way) hurts my feelings. What they did they did, but why not leave it at that?"

Jerusalem is revered as a holy city by Islam, Christianity and Judaism; its future holds the key to any peace accord. The holy sites of all three religions are located inside the Old City walls.

According to a poll published by the Israeli human rights group Ir Amim, 78 percent of Israelis acknowledge the fact that in reality Jerusalem is divided, and 65 percent of Israelis polled said they would be willing to accept a compromise on Jerusalem in order to reach a peace agreement.

While Palestinians cross over into West Jerusalem for transactions such as getting a driver's license, visits to shopping malls -- there are none in Arab East Jerusalem -- or medical tests in the better-equipped Israeli hospitals which they can use as residents of Jerusalem who pay Israeli taxes, very few Israelis have reason to wander into Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods.

According to recent statistics Palestinians make up 34 percent of Jerusalem's 720,000 residents, while another 66 percent of the population is Jewish. Some 180,000 Jewish residents live in neighborhoods built on land in East Jerusalem annexed after the 1967 war. Palestinians refer to these neighborhoods -- which restrict the growth of their own neighborhoods -- as settlements.

Israel is hard-pressed to maintain a demographic balance with a large Jewish majority and has undertaken measures such as the settlements to ensure that the Jewish population grows while restricting the natural growth of the Arab population, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Palestinian East Jerusalemites are being further separated from the rest of the West Bank by the separation wall, which Israel says it needs to keep out Palestinian terrorists who have in the past infiltrated Jewish areas and killed Israeli civilians.

Separation by walls and borders is nothing new to the Daher family. Early in the 20th century Daher's father and uncle came to Jerusalem as teenagers from the northern port city of Haifa. After the 1948 Israeli war of independence, the two now-married brothers were cut off from their family in the north after Jerusalem was divided at the end of the war.

Jews who had lived in the Old City of Jerusalem fled a few streets over to West Jerusalem, and Palestinians living in West Jerusalem neighborhoods escaped in reverse to the eastern part of the city. East Jerusalem and the West Bank came under Jordanian rule while Israel had control over West Jerusalem.

At the end of the 1967 war, both Palestinians and Israelis visited the opposite sides of the city -- which they had not seen in 20 years -- in a daze, recalled Daher.

"People crossed over to see the other side. I hadn't seen a Jew in all my life until I was 27 years old," said Daher. "They didn't look very much different than us."

Since his mother died and his father left their rented flat in the Old City 20 years ago, Daher has not returned to see his childhood home. Israeli settlers have taken possession of the building. With so many physical changes in the area he simply finds it too emotionally difficult to return. He goes to the Old City to visit friends, shop and pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, he said, but he avoids the area where he grew up.

Today, he said, he has cordial relations with Jewish Israeli work colleagues in Tel Aviv. On a daily basis, personal contacts with Israelis are "very OK," he said. Crossing a checkpoint or dealing with the Israeli military officials is a different story, he added.


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