JERUSALEM (Reuters) – From opposite sides of the wall that once divided Jerusalem, Israeli Shlomo Yirmiyahu and Palestinian Yakoob Arrajabi watched in 1967 as the Jewish state seized the Arab east of the city in a blaze of gunfire.
Now, as their leaders prepare for talks about peace, the two devoutly religious men are trying to imagine the future of their home town, which stands at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is treasured as holy by both.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state but splitting the city is a highly divisive issue for Israelis. As a Palestinian who yearns for independence, Arrajabi has much to gain from a compromise.
“All Palestine is sacred to us and Jerusalem is the most precious,” said the bearded 48-year-old. “But the desire of man is one thing and reality is another.”
Arrajabi lives just off Jerusalem’s Route 1 artery which runs north from the Old City along the Green Line that once separated Israel from the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and now informally divides Jerusalem’s Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.
A few blocks south, 69-year-old Yirmiyahu — a portly man — has for decades lived on the other side of that line, comfortable in his belief that Israel — and all Jerusalem — belong to the Jews.
On Fridays at sunset, Yirmiyahu joins hundreds of fellow Jews, many of them Orthodox in black hats, walking down Route 1, through the cobbled streets of the Old City’s Muslim quarter, to pray at the Western Wall — one of Judaism’s most sacred sites.
“The bible says this is the Promised Land for Jews. It’s like we say ‘next year in Jerusalem’,” Yirmiyahu said, quoting the traditional saying in Jewish ritual which expresses the diaspora dream of return to the holy land.
Arrajabi and hundreds of Muslims also pray in the Old City on Fridays. They head for al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, which lies adjacent to the Western Wall and occupies one the most disputed spots of real estate on earth.
With the slender turret of a mosque in the skyline behind him, Yirmiyahu grudgingly concedes that sharing control of his beloved Jerusalem with the Arabs he long viewed as foes might make good sense as part of a deal to secure peace.
“If America and Abu Mazen and all his people would promise to stop harassing the Jews … then it would be good for Israel and the Arabs,” he said, calling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by his familiar name.
Yirmiyahu is more flexible than most of his neighbors, some of whom said they were praying fervently that next week’s U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis, Maryland would fail and talk of a Palestinian state evaporate with it.
Up the road, Arrajabi is also counting on divine intervention — but of a different kind.
“Do I expect to see a Palestinian state in my lifetime? Really, I hope,” he said. “But I don’t expect the conference to start anything new, even though I pray to God for that.”