Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times (Opinion)
March 29, 2010 - 12:00am

A tiny brick house. A disputed neighborhood. And a Solomon-style court ruling that has placed two sets of strangers -- with nothing in common but hatred -- under the same flat roof.

Since December, Israelis have resided in the front part of a house where Palestinians have long lived. All that separates them is a bedroom wall, a sealed door and, lately, the police, who visit regularly to break up the fights.

The Jewish occupants accuse the Palestinians of throwing rocks through the windows and wielding sticks. The Palestinians say the Israelis brandish rifles and pepper spray when the police aren't around.

Even in a city like Jerusalem, where people of different faiths have lived side by side, often uncomfortably, for millenniums, the battle of wills and square footage at House No. 13 Othman Ibn Afan frames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in almost unbearable close-up.

"We can never relax," said Nabil Kurd, 65, head of the Palestinian family that has lived in the home since it was built in 1956. "Every time I pass them, I just want to cry."

No comment, say the Jewish settlers, who were recently given the key to the front rooms by a Jerusalem district court.

Since then, decades of bad blood have played out daily on the front lawn of the run-down house, where the feuding inhabitants are so close to each other that they can hear sneezes on the other side of the wall, smell what's cooking and brush shoulders at the front gate.

Several times, the tensions have exploded into fistfights and brawls. But most days the residents try to keep enough distance to stay out of spitting range. Cursing is so commonplace that one of the first words the Kurds' 2-year-old learned was the Hebrew word for "trash," something both sides shout at each other.

Even when there's no physical confrontation, the residents, like rival siblings, have mastered the little ways to needle and provoke. Blue-and-white Israeli flags have been hoisted on the roof of the Jewish side. The new inhabitants make obscene gestures at the Palestinian women, calling to them as though they were dogs, and taunt the children with laser pointers, the Kurds say. "They call my 87-year-old mother a whore," Kurd said.

The Palestinians give as good as they get. They cut off the water supply to the front part of the house, and Kurd's boys beat on pots and pans to disturb their sleeping Israeli housemates, the parents acknowledge.

Palestinian women line chairs along the front walkway, forcing the Israelis to pass through a gantlet of cold stares and curses to reach their door.

Police, who respond to complaints from the street on average every other day, say it's a miracle no one has been killed or seriously hurt. "The close proximity between the two is causing friction and tension on a daily basis," said Jerusalem police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

The fighting is equally intense in the courts, where lawsuits over who owns the land have wended their way to Israel's Supreme Court more than once. The litigation centers on Jewish claims that the Palestinians are illegal squatters and Palestinian allegations that Jewish deeds to the land were falsified.

For centuries, the property in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem contained nothing but olive trees and the ancient Jewish tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, a high priest who is said to have persuaded Alexander the Great not to destroy the Second Temple.

In the late 1800s, a couple of dozen Jewish immigrant families settled into temporary homes built by a Jewish group whose leaders say their organization bought the property around 1875. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Jewish residents fled when the area came under Jordanian control.

The Kurds were among 28 Palestinian refugee families relocated to the neighborhood in 1956 by the United Nations and the Jordanian government. In exchange for turning in their U.N. ration cards, the Kurds, who had fled their home and business in Haifa, say they were promised title to the newly built home. But before any titles were given, Israel took control of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War.

Jewish groups, asserting previous ownership of the land, moved to evict the Palestinians. The Jewish title has been transferred to a company that says it wants to build 250 Jewish homes on the site. An attorney for the firm, Nahalat Shimon Ltd., declined to comment.

To date, Israeli courts have upheld the Jewish claims and granted eviction orders against several Palestinian families who, during the last two years, have been forcibly removed from their homes. The Kurd family appears to be next, their attorney said.

In December, an Israeli judge took the first step by permitting Jewish claimants to reopen and occupy the front part of the house, which the Kurd family had built in 2000 as an addition. Because the rooms were constructed without permits, which Palestinians say are impossible to obtain, the court ordered them sealed and slated the addition for demolition. The front had remained padlocked and empty until the Israelis arrived with the key, Kurd said.

At first, a family seemed to have moved in, with women and children, the Kurds say. Now, they say, only young Jewish men come and go at all hours of the day and night, often protected by private security guards.

"It's used almost like a Zionist frat house," said one American activist with the International Solidarity Movement, a protest group that is supporting the Kurds.

The garden wall tells the story. Nobody knows how many times it has been spray-painted with graffiti. Stars of David painted over Palestinian flags painted over Stars of David. Arabic slogans over Hebrew ones.

Some chilly evenings, both sides light campfires along the front walkway, sitting less than 20 feet apart and trying to ignore each other.

Then there was the prayer-off in February. Ultra-Orthodox Jews began dancing, singing and praying one Sabbath afternoon. Not to be outdone, Muslim men gathered a few feet away and kneeled in dueling worship.

The household trash is a frequent weapon, getting tossed back and forth like a hot potato, and eventually ending up in the front yard, which has become a kind of no-man's land and repository for garbage and abandoned household fixtures.

One recent morning, an ultra-Orthodox teenager arrived at the front door to find a dead rat and a pile of trash left by the Palestinians. As the Kurd women tried to shoo him away, he kicked the trash into the yard and walked defiantly around the property before leaving.

"They are not here to live," said Kurd, who works as a cigarette company driver. "They are just here to disrupt our lives and provoke us."

Both sides have enlisted reinforcements. Jews throw parties in the yard and once invited a Zionist-themed tour group to gather at the property to discuss historic Jewish claims to the area. It turned into a shouting match, with the tourists and the Palestinians calling one another "murderers."

The Palestinians have invited international activists to live in a tent in the front yard.

The Sheik Jarrah cases have drawn international attention, including calls from the United States for Israel to halt Jewish expansion in the East Jerusalem neighborhood. This month, 3,000 people demonstrated in support of the Palestinian families.

"It feels good to know that we are not alone," Kurd said during the evening protest, hoisting his granddaughter on his shoulders. But when he returned home later that night, it was solitude that he missed. A light shining from the front house window and muffled noise on the other side of the wall was all it took to set his teeth in a clench and bring back that familiar knot in his stomach.


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