Strangers next door
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
JERUSALEM -- The Zands are Israeli Jews. The Mughrabis are Palestinian Muslims. To the casual eye, they are as close as two families could be.
They take the same cobblestone walkway to their apartments, side by side in the Old City of Jerusalem. From his kitchen window, Kamel Mughrabi can watch Leah Zand's kids playing just a few feet away from his nieces and nephews. And when they step out onto their roofs, the families have the same magical view of Temple Mount, an area sacred to Muslims and Jews.
To the east, where star-filled night brightens into day, the Zands can see the very place King Solomon built the first Jewish temple. The Mughrabis look to the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, which enshrines the spot from which the prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended into heaven.
Although their apartments are so close together you could step from one rooftop to the other, the Zands don't know the Mughrabis' names, nor do the Mughrabis know theirs. The children never play with each other; the adults rarely talk.
In the six years the Zands have lived here, there has been no trouble between the two families. Each thinks its neighbors are good people, at least personally. But decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict have cemented hatreds and stereotypes so firmly into place that neither Jew nor Arab believes the other is capable of making peace.
"You get to a point where you think you've gotten something and they say they want more," Leah Zand, a 33-year-old mother of four, complains of Palestinians. "It's a very different culture, how we respect truth and honesty and they just don't. It makes it very hard to negotiate."
Nor does 39-year-old Kamel Mughrabi trust the Jews.
"Our children here in the Old City usually come to this area because it's flatter and they make (paper) airplanes," he says, sweeping his arm toward a rooftop plaza rimmed mostly by Jewish homes. "The Jewish, they beat them, because they don't want them here."
Since the second Palestinian intifada began 19 months ago, after Israeli leader Ariel Sharon made his provocative visit to Temple Mount, the atmosphere between Muslims and Jews in the Old City has grown frostier than usual. The faded maroon doors leading to the Mughrabis' apartment are splotched with white paint: Kamel Mughrabi says it is to cover the "Death to Arabs" graffiti someone scrawled in Hebrew.
And every time Leah Zand looks at a Palestinian, she thinks about her husband. Like thousands of other reservists in the Israel Defense Forces, Ehud Zand was called to active duty as Israeli troops stormed through the West Bank in search of Palestinian terrorists, including those responsible for the March 27 "Passover Massacre" that killed 27 Jews.
For weeks, Zand was stationed in Bethlehem, where Israeli soldiers squared off against scores of Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity. Although the standoff continues, Zand came home last weekend and returned to work as a teacher.
"Everything's back to normal," his wife says.
But can it ever be normal here?
For 3,000 years, the Old City of Jerusalem has been one of the most revered and fought-over places on earth. Within its limestone walls are some of the holiest sites of three major religions.
But the Old City also is home to 35,000 people. They live in distinct quarters -- Christian, Muslim and Jewish -- that meet at a point near Leah Zand's apartment.
"You're in the heart of the Old City here," she says, surveying the churches, mosques and synagogues spread out before her.
To understand the tension between Jews and Muslims in the Old City, you need only look at where the Zands and Mughrabis live.
The Mughrabis' building is ancient. The 800-year-old stones are discolored and most appear badly cracked. Kamel Mughrabi says he filled some of the holes with cement to keep water from seeping through the walls, but Israeli authorities ordered him to stop before he was half finished.
Mughrabi, who makes a modest living selling lottery tickets, shares three small rooms with seven other people -- his mother, his sister, her husband and their four children, ages 2 to 6. A sheet of plastic droops from the living room ceiling, tacked there to keep out the rain. A door leads onto a shabby rooftop, adorned with several squares of pink tile. They are all that is left of the modern bathroom Mughrabi built in the late '80s but was ordered to rip out.
"They don't allow you to do anything," Mughrabi says, echoing a common Palestinian complaint about Israeli inspectors.
Just a few feet away, the Zands' apartment building looks almost new. Although Jews have lived in the Old City intermittently for 3,000 years, the Jewish quarter was all but destroyed while it was held by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. Not until Israel recaptured the Old City in the 1967 Mideast War did rebuilding start and Jews begin moving back in significant numbers.
The Zands' building, solidly made of white Jerusalem limestone, dates to 1980. Their apartment is as modern and well-maintained as the Mughrabis' is old and decrepit. The Zands have turned their rooftop into a spacious patio, with chairs, a glider swing, slide and playhouse. The whole thing is shaded in summer by a tarp, supported by a massive framework of two-by-sixes.
No doubt about it, the Zands' place looks far better than the Mughrabis. But Leah Zand takes issue with her neighbor's claim that Israeli authorities are more apt to grant construction permits to Jews than to Muslims.
"It's really hard to get permission for anything," she says, "because they want it to be pretty and well restored." Then she gestures toward a shack on the roof of a nearby Muslim house and adds: "Of course no one would give a permit for something as ugly as that."
Zand and her husband are from northern Israel and Tel Aviv, respectively, but met while they were students at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. They decided to spent $280,000 for an apartment in the Old City because the area is so central to their religion.
"There's not as much green and it's not as attractive as other places but you're living in history, you become part of the dynasty of your ancestors," she says. "I live here and so did King David. It makes you value your life and your traditions more because you're so close."
The Mughrabis feel the same. Their ancestors came from Morocco generations ago to be near the Muslim holy sites. Now just 50 members of the family are left in this part of the Old City, which is becoming more and more Jewish.
Kamel Mughrabi says his 65-year-old mother has rejected offers to sell to Jews, at one point going into an Israeli court to fight an ouster attempt.
"She told the judge, "If all the stones turned to gold and all the dust to silver, still I would not sell,' " Mughrabi says.
To outsiders, the Zands and Mughrabis -- like Israelis and Palestinians in general -- have more in common than they might care to admit. Both have a rich sense of history and clearly cherish living in one of the most spiritual places on earth. Both are gracious to guests, dote on family, adore their children.
And on a personal level, they try to be good neighbors.
The Mughrabis didn't object when the Zands erected their huge tarp support, even though it partially blocked the Mughrabis' view of the Dome of the Rock.
"When they wanted to put this thing up, they asked us first. This is very nice of them," Kamel Mughrabi says.
Likewise, the Zands have never complained about the big pigeon coop Mughrabi built on his roof, even though they are occasionally bothered by the smell of dead birds.
"It's nice to have some nature around," Leah Zand says. "We miss nature here, having animals and things."
Neither family professes fear of the other -- after one of the Mughrabis locked himself out late at night, the Zands let him go through their place to get to his apartment via the roof. Nor do the families forbid their children to play with each other.
It just never happens.
"They've never shown any interest," Leah Zand says of her three girls, "and it's such a complicated situation. If they're playing with Jewish kids and they have a fight, it's just a kids' fight. But if ever there were a fight between Jewish and Arab kids, it might turn into something more."
One of the Zands' daughters is learning Arabic in school, partly so she and other Jewish children "can maintain good relationships with our neighbors," Zand says. But there is another, darker reason: "If they walk through a place and somebody is going to hurt them, they should know what they're saying."
The Zands and Mughrabis never talk with each other about "the situation" -- as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is called here -- but they don't hesitate to tell outsiders what they think.
Kamel Mughrabi is convinced the Jews want to run Palestinians out of the Old City, if not out of the region.
"You plant your tree in your garden and another one comes and says to you, "Why not move your tree to another garden?' and you know he wants to plant his tree in the same place," Mughrabi says, speaking allegorically. "Why does he have more rights than me?"
Leah Zand is equally convinced that Jews are only exercising their God-given right to the land.
"I would like the state of Isrel to become what it should be, home of all Jews, and if anyone else wants to stay here and make a happy vision and be part of it, that is fine. But if they are going to spread hate and terror around, I don't want them to stay. If it's me or them, it's me."
-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com
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