Jerusalem: It’s Tense, Crowded and Can Feel Like a Jail

(The New York Times) JERUSALEM — This is a tense city on a good day.

You feel it behind the wheel: The traffic signals turn red and yellow to alert a coming green. Hesitate a half-second before accelerating? A honking horn. Schoolgirls gesture at motorists as they step into a crosswalk, fingertips bunched and faces scowling: Will you wait, or what?

You see it in the crowding: Overstuffed apartments spilling onto one another, in teeming Palestinian neighborhoods, and in ghetto-like ultra-Orthodox enclaves, a few blocks apart on either side of the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary with the West Bank.

You hear it in the way people talk — “The Arabs,” “The Jews” — about people with whom they have been sentenced to share a tiny patch of soil atop a ridge with no strategic value, over which the world has been battling for thousands of years, and negotiating on and off for decades, with no end in sight.

The world knows Jerusalem by the Old City and its Golden Dome, its ancient wall from the time of Herod, its Holy Sepulcher, its rough-hewed stones flattered by brilliant sunlight.

But Jerusalem is not just its postcard vistas. A pilgrimage is not the same as living here. The day-in, day-out friction can be draining. And when the conflict bubbles up, even natives can question why they persist.

Beit Hanina, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. “You feel like you’re living in jail here,” one neighborhood resident said. “The people are so tense.” Credit Uriel Sinai for The New York Times

“We all believe there’s something sacred in this city, but it’s too difficult,” said Tomer Aser, 35, who lives in Beit Hanina, in East Jerusalem. “You feel like you’re living in jail here. The people are so tense. And you feel yourself separated: You have to be with either the Israeli community or the Arab community. There’s no difference — we’re one country — but it’s Israeli Arabs, or Palestinians, or Israeli Jews.”

For Jerusalemites, stress is something to learn to live with. It builds up, day by day, culminating in the release and rest of the Sabbath — a one-day weekend that religious Jews build their lives around, and secular Jews and Arabs make the most of.

And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too, builds up a longer-term pressure, one that periodically threatens to burst out in episodes of violence.

With President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital roiling the West Bank and Gaza, the city was braced for its most serious flare-up in months, if not years. But no one was sure how bad it would get.

A ride on the Jerusalem Light Rail on Friday morning gave a taste of what that uncertainty can feel like.

The Red Line — the city’s only line, so far — begins in West Jerusalem at Mount Herzl, a monument to Israel’s origins, home of Yad Vashem and of Israel’s national and military cemeteries.

It runs all the way to the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina before ending in bustling Pisgat Ze’ev, one of several Jewish settlements built to encircle East Jerusalem on territory seized in 1967.

The light rail is a leveler, a modern convenience and conveyance, with efficient service, pleasant views — and visible security. A British student was stabbed to death on the line in April.

The line is not used by Arabs nearly as much as by Jews. After a Shuafat teenager was kidnapped near a light-rail station, tortured and killed by a group of Israelis in 2014, Palestinian protesters attacked the transit line as a symbol of the Israeli occupation.

On Friday morning, religious Jews prayed as they rode, two girls in school uniforms giggled, and an older Arab man clutched two bags of groceries and stared straight ahead.

“Nobody really wants to hate each other,” said Jane Aharon, a property manager originally from Seattle, who moved to Israel in 2003 and to Jerusalem in 2009. “But it’s intense.”

She added: “Things can happen around you.”

Intensity is not always bad. The light rail wends its way down Jaffa Street past the Mahane Yehuda market, where Friday mornings are helter-skelter with shoppers battling for challah and olives, for fresh fish and pomegranate seeds, all on deadline: The stores will close in a few hours, most of them until Sunday.

Shlomo Fitusi, a welder, 69, slowly makes his way through the thicket of shoppers on a bicycle, with kosher wine hanging from the handlebars in a bag.

He is a member of Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic sect, who lives near the Old City, and says he rises at 3 every morning and makes his way to the Western Wall by 4. He lived in France for a time but returned 14 years ago. “There’s nothing to do abroad,” he said. He added, with messianic fervor: “And soon Jerusalem will be the capital of the whole world.”

While this pride in the city is common, scratch the surface of nearly any Jerusalemite, and grievances will come pouring out.

The rail line makes a few more curves and reaches the Damascus Gate station, where in a parking lot for buses, Jamil Rajbi, 54, a driver, finishes praying and rolls up his fringed mat.

He lives in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem where Jewish settlers have begun buying up homes. One moved in next door. People throw rocks at the settlers’ cars, but the rocks now bounce off protective nets and onto Mr. Rajbi’s cars.

He said his community wanted to buy the house back and turn it into a kindergarten, but the new residents have refused to sell. “They drive us crazy,” he said.

At Damascus Gate, a phalanx of cameras are waiting to see what will happen when Muslims emerge from noontime prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque, in the sacred compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Inside the Old City, the Arab market is just as lively and cacophonous as the Jewish one, with vendors yelling to be heard about their strawberries, smartphone covers and sweatshirts. Prayers have ended, and a sea of people stream out. Their faces are upbeat.

Nabil al-Hejerasi, 65, says the message from the clerics was “to be patient, not to worry what other people say. The truth will come one day.”

An importer, Mr. Hejerasi lived in Minnesota for many years, but moved back to Jerusalem a decade ago. “Everybody loves home,” he said, adding that he cannot imagine being buried anywhere else. “You want to die at home.”

But he said it was not easy being back. “People are stubborn,” he said. “They don’t travel much, and their brain is working in one way. They only see close to their nose. Life is tough here for both sides, until peace comes.”

Down an alley leading farther into the Muslim Quarter, a noise wells up. Jewish settlers on a rooftop have thrown eggs at the Arabs below.

Suddenly a stampede: Three Israeli border police officers in riot helmets sprint by, chasing someone. A moment later the chase is ended. As the officers catch their breath, a woman curses them in Arabic; one of the officers returns the slur, adding, “Move along.”

But strife does not exist only between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.

Back on the light rail, Rina Pure, who grew up in Acre, on the Israeli coast, said she bought her apartment in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem years ago, “but now half the people are religious,” and it was getting to be too much for her to stay. She plans to join her daughter in Tel Aviv — one more in an exodus of secular Jews from the Holy City since the 1980s.

Ms. Pure said she still loved the city, speaking of it in the feminine, as in the sacred Jewish texts: “She’s beautiful. I love the atmosphere, the inspiration, the architecture. She’s unique. She’s the only one. She’s interesting. The people are good,” she said. “But I’m tired of it.”

It is well into the afternoon now, and the trains have stopped running in advance of the Sabbath. A taxi will have to suffice for the return trip.

“I’ve been driving for 18 years,” says Muhammad Ziada, 39. He says he has many Jewish friends, goes to their weddings, attends their relatives’ funerals, as they do for his.

“But there’s a big religion problem in Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s a city of racism. Once there’s a little bit of balagan” — chaos — “between Jews and Arabs, Jews won’t go in my taxi, and Arabs won’t go to the mall. And if I go into a religious neighborhood and they find out I’m Arab, they’ll stone my car.”

Mr. Ziada drives past a vacant property he says his family owns, but where he says the Israeli authorities have barred him from building. He refuses to sell.

“There will never be peace here,” Mr. Ziada says. But he does not lay blame. “If they take all the Arabs away, the Jews would eat each other. And the same thing with us.”

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