Mideast Conflict Plays Out In A House Divided On the surface, Jerusalem's Old City is an ideal melting pot, where Muslims, Christians and Jews live together in the ancient walled enclave. But a quiet struggle is being waged in the Old City, building by building, as Israelis try to restore a Jewish majority.
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Mideast Conflict Plays Out In A House Divided

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Mideast Conflict Plays Out In A House Divided

Mideast Conflict Plays Out In A House Divided

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're now going to visit the old city of Jerusalem. Its ancient walls enclose roughly half a square mile and a number of Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro takes us to one apartment building in the old city that has changed hands. And she reports on what the struggle between its Arab and Jewish residents says about the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The first thing that may catch your eye as you walk around Jerusalem's Old City as I'm doing now is the throngs of tourists coming to see the holy sites or the shops selling religious icons to the faithful who flock here from all over the world.

But what's extraordinary is that this tiny walled enclave is a living city. Wander farther along through its labyrinthine stone streets and you'll see, like I am now, tiny doorways and small passageways that lead to solely residential areas.

Muslims, Christians, Jews all live in this ancient area that seems so removed from, and yet is so intrinsically a part of, the modern world that surrounds it. It's the beating heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everyone wants a piece of it.

Mr. DANIEL LURIA (Executive Director, Ateret Cohanim): My name is Daniel, Daniel Luria. I'm the executive director of Ateret Cohanim, also known actually as Jerusalem Reclamation Project or Jerusalem Lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luria is taking me on a tour of the Old City. His organization, he tells me, is about the revival of Jewish life in the heart of Jerusalem. What that means, practically speaking, is that Ateret Cohanim connects wealthy, ideologically driven Jewish investors to available property in the Old City. He calls his group a kind of holy real estate agency.

Mr. LURIA: We just passed actually a huge building, actually, in the middle of the Christian Quarter, where the biggest building that exists in the Old City is today in Jewish hands. It used to be owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. Today, there's 10 families there and a yeshiva in this big building that, actually, Yasser Arafat, (Hebrew spoken), he actually even wanted as his foothold in the Old City. It's in Jewish hands today.

Individuals from around the world buy the buildings, and it's in their name. Families are put in, rabbinical families, yeshiva students, and today you have a thousand Jews, mainly yeshiva students, living in the old Jewish Quarter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What Luria calls the old Jewish Quarter is what the rest of the world knows as the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. He says he doesn't dispute that Arabs can live here, but they must accept that this is a Jewish state.

Mr. LURIA: Land for peace doesn't work. God gave this land to the Jewish people. The land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Anyone who wants to live here in the Jewish state, 100 percent, but if not, then bad luck. There is no shortage of Arab states. This is a Jewish state for Jewish people, full stop.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ateret Cohanim has been involved in dozens of purchases here. But of the more than 30,000 residents of the Old City, only a fraction are Jewish. Luria says his aim is simple: Restore a Jewish majority to the Old City, one deal at a time.

Mr. LURIA: Apartment after apartment, building after building. Today there are close to 50 buildings in the Old City. Some of them are huge. Some of them are like we just passed. Some of them, for example, Ariel Sharon has an apartment. There are seven Jewish families and two Arab families living in a closed secure courtyard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What a closed secure courtyard means is this: The Israeli government pays private security contractors to protect the Jewish residents in the Old City and other predominantly Arab areas of East Jerusalem. These guards sometimes live in the buildings the settlers occupy, and they walk Jewish children to and from their schools.

According to government records in 2009, some $15 million was spent on private security guards for the Jewish residents of East Jerusalem. As we're walking, we see in front of us a group of young Jewish children flanked by two well-muscled guards dressed in black.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. LURIA: They are being taken backwards and forwards, to go to and from school. In America, you have a yellow bus that picks up kids and picks people up. So, here, we got security guards that will do that work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We finally arrive at our destination at a house near Herod's Gate in the Muslim quarter. Luria knocks on a nondescript metal door, and it's opened by a security guard. A few weeks ago, two Jewish families were moved into the building. One Palestinian family remains.

Mr. LURIA: Jewish concerns bought it officially 23 years ago. But because there were protected tenants all these years, it took many years before those who were living here preferred to obviously take money rather than just keep on going. He's still here, and we'll see what happens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Jewish families that now live here are not the owners. Luria's organization decides who will reside in the purchased buildings. In this case, two rabbinical families have moved in. They're not allowed to speak to the press without Luria's permission, and he declined to make them available to NPR. It's clear, though, that this is an uneasy coexistence.

So I'm standing in this absolutely beautiful old stone courtyard. The side of the building that is inhabited by Jewish families at the moment is papered with Israeli flags. On the other side of the building, which is where the Palestinian family lives, Palestinian flags wave in the air.

Dividing the two: Blue metal barricades in the courtyard. After Luria leaves, we speak with the building's Palestinian resident, Mazen Kamal Qiresh.

Mr. MAZEN KAMAL QIRESH: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's an enormous man. His girth is encased in a dishdasha, and he sits down wearily. He tells me his family has been renting here since 1936. In 1987, the Palestinian family that owned the building sold it to its current Jewish owners.

Mr. QIRESH: (Through translator) They requested that we evacuate the house, and we immediately took them to court.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Qiresh family won because they have a protected tenancy, which means they pay a controlled rent and can't be evicted without legal cause. But it was only a stay of execution.

Mazen says he was offered millions of dollars to move out. He refused. Then this summer, his brother's family was evicted from their half of the building.

Mr. QIRESH: (Through translator) On the 28th of July, we were shocked to see them at our door. It was two in the morning. They had a lot of settlers, and they had a lot of soldiers standing at our doorstep.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The settler families eventually moved into his brother's wing, and the building was effectively divided. Legal battles continue to get Mazen evicted.

Mazen says life has become difficult. Jewish guards are the gatekeepers. Friends and family, he says, are too intimidated to visit him.

Mr. QIRESH: (Through translator) I feel like I'm living in a prison here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Jewish families, he says, pray loudly sometimes. Mazen sometimes blares Quranic verses on his radio. The situation is bearable for now, though, he says.

But Luria has told me his organization might put in a yeshiva with its many students in a part of the building. When I tell Mazen this, his face falls.

Mr. MAZEN: (Through translator) It's like killing me. It will be an impossible situation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like Ateret Cohanim and its wealthy Jewish backers, Mazen isn't actually fighting alone. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah pays his lawyers' fees.

This building is a small piece in a much larger battle, and it's drawn in the powers that swirl around this conflict.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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