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Deadly attacks further divide Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem

Times Staff Writer

The residents of East and West Jerusalem have lived side by side, if not together, for 40 years, ever since Israel seized the Arab side of the city from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East War.

The union has rarely been a happy one. But recent incidents have residents on both sides viewing each other with renewed suspicion and anxiety.

“There is no relationship” between mostly Arab East Jerusalem and the predominantly Jewish western neighborhoods, said Khalil Tafakji, a Palestinian geographer and map specialist. East Jerusalem’s Arab residents “go to the west to work and then return home and that’s it,” he said.

Last week, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem driving an earthmover killed three people and wounded dozens in a rampage downtown. In March, an Arab from East Jerusalem killed eight young students in a yeshiva.

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The two incidents have revived public demands for action, and Israeli politicians appear ready to answer that call.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the destruction of the homes of both attackers -- a punishment once frequently meted out in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but rarely used in East Jerusalem. The attorney general’s office has given the green light, but the demolitions may not take place for several weeks.

In the meantime, Israelis, who feel safer thanks to a massive concrete barrier sealing off their nation from much of the West Bank, are openly debating what many believe is a renewed threat from within.

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post last week fretted about “a trend toward radicalization” among East Jerusalem’s estimated 200,000 Arabs.

“They may work for Jews; they may receive health and social benefits from the Zionist state, but culturally and politically they are inseparable from the surrounding Arab milieu,” the editorial stated. “They watch the same satellite TV and hear preachers espousing the same radical messages as their compatriots in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Tafakji denied that Arabs in Jerusalem represent a threat, but acknowledged that anger and alienation have been building in recent years.

Cultural and social differences separate East Jerusalem residents from other Arabs who were absorbed into Israel with varying degrees of success when the state was created in 1948. Arab Israelis often speak Hebrew and can vote and run for office in the Jewish state.

The construction of the barrier has literally cut off East Jerusalem’s natural social and emotional connections with the West Bank. The growth of Israeli settlements around Jerusalem has fueled fears among Arab residents that they are being encircled and will never be allowed to join an eventual West Bank-based Palestinian state.

“We’re not Jordanians, not Palestinians and not Israelis,” Tafakji said. “The frustration has been there for a long time.”

East Jerusalem’s Arabs have existed in a legal no man’s land since 1967, when Israel annexed the area after the war. They were offered the chance to assume Israeli citizenship, but the vast majority refused. Instead they carry residency cards, which entitle them to move freely and receive social benefits, but they hold Jordanian passports and can vote only in municipal elections.

“The land was fully annexed in 1967, but the people on the land were only partially annexed,” said Menachem Klein, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “They became residents, but not citizens.”

Many East Jerusalem residents work on the predominantly Jewish west side. Relations between the two communities warmed in the late 1990s amid the optimism of the Oslo peace process. But the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000 hardened feelings on both sides.

In recent years, Klein said, Israel has helped create a political vacuum in East Jerusalem by hindering Palestinian Authority activity and suppressing the development of homegrown political leadership.

“It’s very clear that Israel doesn’t want any Palestinian leadership to emerge and is working to keep the Arab community in Jerusalem divided, weak and unable to resist,” Klein said.

But the strategy may have backfired. In Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the militant group Hamas dominated the East Jerusalem vote, rather than the more moderate Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

After the yeshiva killings in March, police prevented right-wing Israeli protesters from attacking the home of the shooter, Alaa abu Dheim. Last week, those close to Hussam Duwayaat, the earthmover driver, took pains to distance his actions from the community at large. A lawyer representing the family described Duwayaat as a mentally unstable drug addict with a criminal history.

The effort to depict the 30-year-old father of two as a lone, apolitical maniac could partly be an attempt to head off demolition of the family’s home.

Although it remains to be seen whether Defense Minister Barak intends to carry out the order, the prospect inspires debate about Israel’s relationship with East Jerusalem residents.

“In West Jerusalem, the state does not customarily destroy the homes of the families of murderers,” columnist Uzi Benziman wrote in the daily newspaper Haaretz. “It is impossible to claim sovereignty over East Jerusalem while applying a special set of laws to its inhabitants.”

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com


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