Jewish-Arab school attack scars Jerusalem's troubled co-existence

Jewish-Arab school attack scars Jerusalem's troubled co-existence
A worker carries a burnt board in a torched classroom in an Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem November 30, 2014.

JERUSALEM - The Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem presents an almost too-perfect scene in a tense and divided city, where Jews and Arabs do daily business but rarely befriend one other.

Classrooms are decorated with pictures of doves bearing olive branches, while pupils from both communities are as likely to greet their bilingual teachers with a "Shalom" in Hebrew as with an Arabic "Sabah al-khair" in the morning.

In an English class this week, 12- and 13-year-old Arab and Jewish children were learning the words to "Imagine", in which pop singer John Lennon invited listeners to contemplate "all the people living life in peace".

But last Saturday, the hatred that has surged in Jerusalem in recent months intruded on Hand in Hand, which has tried to foster unity since its founding in 1998. One of its classrooms was set ablaze, books were burnt and graffiti reading "Death to Arabs" was sprayed on a wall.

No one was around during the attack, which police suspect was carried out by far-right Israelis. But it reflected how ethnic tensions have spilled into violence, including four Jewish worshippers and a policeman shot or knifed to death by Palestinians in a synagogue last month.

The city has long been divided. Western districts are mostly Jewish while Palestinians live to the east - over the invisible "Green Line" that marked the line separating Israel and Jordan until a 1967 war when Israeli forces took over East Jerusalem.

About half a million residents are Jewish, including 200,000 in settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, while a little over 300,000 Palestinians live in the city.

Divisions have hardened as Israeli forces erected roadblocks between Palestinian and Jewish areas to limit the attacks. Nevertheless, Jews and Arabs have long lived almost side-by-side in some districts, including where Hand in Hand is based.

On one side of the street is the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa; on the other the Jewish district of Pat. The local Arab-run supermarket is popular with Jewish shoppers, especially on Saturdays when Jewish shops are shut, and Jaqueline the Arab hairdresser caters to everyone.

Yet such is the mutual suspicion that contact is mostly limited to simple transactions. "We are an Arab island in a sea of Israeli settlements," says Abdul Kareem Lafi, a leader in the city's Arab school system who lives in Beit Safafa. "There are no relations to speak of with our Jewish neighbours."

For Lafi, Israel's 47-year occupation taints any effort to live equally. "Until we are given our political rights, we see 'coexistence' as normalizing the Israeli occupation and the stealing of our land," he said.

Arik Sporta, Hand in Hand's principal, wants to overcome precisely this sort of division, especially since the attackers also sprayed "There is no coexistence with cancer" on the school walls. "If there is anything saving Israeli democracy these days, it is activity like ours," he said, the muezzin's call to prayer sounding from a nearby mosque. "We just feel stronger."

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