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My Arab Neighbors

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

A rude awakening after the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

I live in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. A two-minute walk from my house is the Arab shuk. When I first came here 19 years ago, the shuk was a bustling bazaar, which drew crowds of foreign tourists and Israelis eager to experience the exotic aromas and tastes of a genuine Middle Eastern marketplace in the heart of modern Israel. I, too, was enticed by the open stalls of fragrant spices heaped up in colorful piles, dried fruits and grains, mouth-watering Levantine sweets, and hand-crafted souvenirs (mostly from India!), all to be had by bargaining down the amiable shopkeepers.

The first surge of Arab violence in the late 1980s changed all that. While Arab youth hurled stones and burned tires, the P.L.O. declared a strike of all Arab workers and businesses. All of the stalls and shops in the shuk were locked with metal shutters. The strike lasted for weeks, then months, then years. I would hurry through the moribund narrow lanes of the shuk -- my most direct path out of the Old City -- and feel sorry for the shopkeepers, who sat on stools outside their shuttered stalls playing backgammon.

We Jews knew that they had not chosen this financial catastrophe. These shopkeepers were not the political radicals of the P.L.O. nor the religious extremists of Hamas. Rather, they were moderates, who just wanted to live in peace, raise their families, and earn their livelihoods. The P.L.O., however, forced them to stay closed. Indeed, two shops near the Damascus Gate which dared to open were promptly torched by Arafat's henchmen.

My sense that our local Arabs were moderates and pragmatists was confirmed in 2000, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat control of three-quarters of the Old City. In strict confidence, I asked a local Arab shopkeeper with whom I did, and do, regular business what he thought of the prospect of living under the rule of Yassar Arafat. He replied that he had grown used to freedom over the last 33 years [since the Six Day War brought Israeli democracy to all of Jerusalem], and he was not looking forward to losing that freedom.

Even when bombs started exploding in Jerusalem buses and cafes, everyone knew that the terrorists were Arabs from outside Jerusalem. The orders were given by Arafat in Ramallah and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza, and carried out by terrorists from Hebron, Jenin, Tulkarem, and villages throughout the Palestinian Authority. The terrorism had nothing to do with our Jerusalem Arabs, who, indeed, were occasionally among the victims.

Every population has its fringe element, I told myself. The majority of Jerusalem Arabs are still moderates.

Like most Israelis, I was shocked when, in the aftermath of the Hebrew University bombing, which killed eight students, the police revealed that the perpetrators were Jerusalem Arabs. In fact, the painter who planted the bomb in a paper bag under a table in the University cafeteria lived just down the hill from me, right outside the Old City walls. Every population has its fringe element, I told myself. The majority are still moderates, or at least pragmatic enough to want the higher standard of living which Israel offers its Arab citizens.

Even when poll after poll revealed that 60-65% of Palestinians supported suicide bombings, I knew it did not reflect the attitudes of our local Jerusalem Arabs. The Oslo War had hit them hard, as fear of terrorism had kept the tourists away. The Arab shuk was sparsely patronized; the shopkeepers looked glum, the unwitting victims of Arafat's and Sheikh Yassin's bloodthirsty policies.

Two days after Israel's assassination of arch-terrorist Sheikh Yassin, I had to go into town. As I turned into the shuk, I was disconcerted to see all the stalls and shops shuttered closed. I knew that Arafat had called for three days of mourning for Yassin, but what did that have to do with our Jerusalem Arabs? They're not Hamas followers, nor are they under Arafat's authority. When the security fence is finished, these are the people who will be locked in with us on our side of the fence.

Seeing a fruit vendor whom I recognized sitting outside his shuttered stall, I stopped and asked him, "What's going on? Are you really mourning that murderer?"

Two nearby middle-aged shopkeepers approached me. "What murderer?" they asked.

"Why, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin," I retorted. "That murderer of children. Are you really in mourning for him?"

I expected them to say, I wanted them to say: "No, of course not, Fatah orders us to strike, so we strike."

Yassin was the founder and head of Hamas. And these shopkeepers -- the most moderate of the Arab population -- were mourning him like a hero?

Instead they started yelling at me in Arabic, their fists clenched and raised. One grey-haired shopkeeper shouted, "Get out of here. Who wants you here!"

I hurried past, fuming. Yassin was the founder and head of Hamas. He was personally responsible for over 400 terrorist attacks, killing 377 Israeli children, mothers, and fathers, and wounding and maiming over 2,000 innocent people. And these shopkeepers -- the most moderate of the Arab population -- were mourning him like a hero?

Almost at the Jaffa Gate exit to the Old City, I passed three white-haired shopkeepers standing in front of their large, bolted stores. Surely they were closed only out of obedience to Arafat, not sympathy with Hamas. I stopped and said politely, "May I ask you a question." They nodded, and I continued, "Are you striking because Fatah ordered you to, or do you really feel mourning in your hearts?"

The oldest of the three, wearing a tie and jacket, put his hand on his heart and said earnestly, "We really feel the mourning in our hearts."

"For that terrorist?" I exploded. "For that murderer?"

A second man faced off with me, his nose almost touching my nose. "You call him a murderer?! What about Sharon?" he yelled.

"What about Sharon?" I yelled back.

"And what about the wall? Have you seen the wall?" he thundered.

"What wall?" Now I was perplexed.

"The wall! The wall!" he raged. "The wall they are building."

"Oh," I answered, "you mean the security fence. We wouldn't be building the security fence if terrorists like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin didn't send his people to kill our children."

With that I turned and started to walk away. The third man followed me, ranting, "Who started it? Who started it? You think we want to live under you Israelis?"

I turned and faced him, "Well, do you really want to live under Arafat, with no freedom of speech, no freedom of opinion?"

"Yes! Arafat! Anyone but you Israelis!" He was seething. It suddenly occurred to me that I could get hurt. I turned toward Jaffa Gate, as he shouted after me a stream of curses. I hurried away, wondering, "If these aren't the Arab moderates, who are?"

On my way home, for the first time in 19 years, I was too afraid to walk through the shuk. I took the long way around.


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