Sami Albas opened his shop three hours early. By afternoon, he knew, he would have to close or have hell to pay.
“Every year, they come and kick the merchandise, break things and ruin our stores and the police do nothing,” he said.
All over the narrow, cobbled streets of the Arab portions of the Old City, there was the sound of doors slamming, water pipes and spices and groceries being shoved back inside, locked up, put away.
Here in one of the world’s most divided cities, Sunday was Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, celebrating the city’s unification a generation ago under Israeli rule.
In 1967, Israeli troops swept into eastern Jerusalem during the Middle East War and drove out Jordanian forces, regaining the Western Wall, sacred to Judaism. Forty-eight years later, Israelis and Palestinians live intractably in a city that is unified in name but so often not in reality. They meet in the public sphere but remain deeply divided while Israeli leaders emphasize Jerusalem will remain united and under full Israeli sovereignty.
By Sunday afternoon, thousands of Israelis flooded the streets, with long columns of jovial youths snaking through the city, representing dozens of towns and religious schools from all over the country.
They marched from west to east, and then through the Old City to the Western Wall. They waved Israel’s blue-and-white national flag, their chanting echoing as it bounced off the walls along with music in a homecoming parade of sorts, as people wished one another a happy holiday.
But in the narrow alleys of the Old City’s market, the Palestinian shopkeepers weren’t celebrating. One after another, dozens of them locked up their businesses, closing the green metal shutters to reveal competing graffiti scrawls such as “Free Palestine” and “Arabs out.”
Here in the souk, Jerusalem Day has a different meaning.
“You call this a holiday. I call it a zoo,” said Albas, 22, as he began locking up his merchandise. “For me, a holiday is when people walk around with their families, visit with their children, drink coffee, buy gifts for relatives.”
Albas sells pottery and gifts to tourists of all faiths and enjoys the diverse daily interaction.
“I love everyone who comes here; I forget about the situation,” he said. For Hanukkah, he buys special holiday items for Jewish customers. “But just when I think things are all right and that we can all get along, something bad happens. They just don’t let me forget I’m Palestinian.”
As the day unfolded, Jerusalem roared with singing as throngs of visitors, mostly Jewish Orthodox teens, marched through the city in what is known as “the flag parade.” With white T-shirts printed with verses praising Jerusalem and stickers vowing to keep the city forever united, the parade made its way to East Jerusalem.
Traffic was snarled for hours throughout the city, even as some leftist Israelis who had sought unsuccessfully to alter the route handed out flowers in an attempt to make amends.
Clashes broke out at one point among Israeli nationalists, police and Palestinian counter-demonstrators, and President Reuven Rivlin cautioned that neglect of the Arab population in East Jerusalem — which Arabs have long claimed as the capital of a future Palestinian state — has raised uncomfortable international questions about Israel’s rights to the united city.
“I fear that we ourselves have not yet looked frankly at the meaning of our sovereignty in the city,” he said.
There are “huge disparities” between prospering West Jerusalem and the neglected, impoverished Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, he said, and although Israel has completed the physical unification of the city, “the task of unifying the city’s social and economic aspects has barely begun.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expressing no such misgivings.
“We will preserve Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli sovereignty forever,” Netanyahu declared at a state ceremony at Ammunition Hill, once a fortified Jordanian post and site of one of the fiercest battles in the 1967 war.
“Jerusalem was always the capital of the Jewish people only, and no other,” the prime minister said.
Here in the Old City, celebrators were beginning to walk down the market alleys toward the Western Wall as Albas was plucking the last of the glass lamps hanging outside his shop before locking up.
He was going to head home before anything could happen. He’d seen this holiday too many times before.
“This is a rampage,” he said, before rolling shut the door.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.