Amid tenuous threads of peace, Jews, Arabs struggle to coexist

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JERUSALEM — The Chassidic owner of a cafe in Safed praises his city as a haven for mysticism and religion and — most importantly to him — it's far away from Arabs. Israel "is our land, so why should we give it up," he says.

Just a two-hour drive away, in Jerusalem, Abu Hassan operates the only tourist operation in Israel offering visits to the ground zero of Palestinian unrest — Gaza, Hebron and Ramallah. "I want people, especially Israelis, to see my people suffering," he says.

Avi, a Jewish cab driver on his way to the Ben-Gurion Airport, pays more attention to politics than to driving as he launches an oratory. He approves of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "doing the right, safe peace. Palestinians only exaggerate his mistakes."

And in Jerusalem's Old City, Zak Mishriky, a 21-year-old Palestinian, tries to keep his antiques store afloat by avoiding the riots his younger brother joins. "My brother is into burning flags and throwing rocks. But I'm for God and anything that is peace," he says.

These four typify the variety of sentiments expressed on Israel's streets. Even though polls show most Israeli Jews support the peace process, the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians are as embattled as ever in the face of the tenuous threads of truce still holding.

Safed, perched pristinely in the hills near the Sea of Galilee, seems isolated from the daily drama over peace. But a closer look at Safed's charming archaic buildings, some bearing classical Islamic features, shows bullet holes dating from 1948.

David, the cafe owner, insists: "In no other country would a government consider the demands of dissenters who wish to form their own country. Arabs can stay if they want, but they have to live by the government's rules."

An American yeshiva student asks him why Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Jews who obviously went beyond the government's rules. David replies, "It's obvious Rabin was set up by his own government. It was an internal thing."

Attacking from the other side of the political spectrum, Abu Hassan rails against Israel's government.

Hassan coolly explains that his business is part of his pro-peace activism, but turns on his aggression when discussing his "war for peace."

He's been arrested and jailed countless times for his peace efforts. He requests that no photograph be taken, saying it will be used against him later.

"They say they have a democratic state but I'm still struggling for my right to freedom," Hassan says

"We need equality which will only come by working together. Economically, we're doing worse since the intifada. There are fanatics on both sides. Ultimately, the real problem is not Arabs vs. Jews, but Jews against Jews and Arabs against Arabs."

Avi, a Tel Aviv-based cab driver, can't resist commenting on the news he hears every hour on the radio.

He questions whether the media know the truth behind all the riots in the West Bank that week. "No one was killed. The Palestinians say that people are killed everyday, but where's the proof? I think they are lying."

According to Avi, "Netanyahu makes it simple when he says, `They give, they'll get.'"

But even Avi does not believe the romanticism for peace that inspired the spate of "Shalom, Chaver" bumper stickers honoring Rabin will be replaced by "They give, they'll get."

In Jerusalem's Arab quarter, Mishriky relaxes in front of his antiques store and keeps a close eye on his teenage brother. "I just want our family to live a good life," Mishriky says.

His brother often jumps into the skirmishes flaring up around eastern Jerusalem. He is not interested in the big political picture, Mishriky explains. Rather, the brother is motivated by the daily pain his family experiences living in a rundown refugee camp outside the city.

"I tell my brother it's not worth throwing rocks," Mishriky says. "He needs to get an education to be able to beat people with his mind. That's the only way he'll ever get respect."

Mishriky's store is located near Damascus Gate, the backdrop to a mass of cab drivers, peddlers, shoppers and businesspeople — mostly Arabs — streaming in and out.

Sometimes young Palestinians who mill about the gate just light firecrackers or shout insults to razz the Israeli soldiers, but nearly every month full-scale riots erupt and the soldiers send sprays of rubber-coated bullets to quell the uproar.

"People seem scared to come down here," he says. "I'm for peace because it is the only thing that can help the Palestinian people."

But prospects for a lasting peace seem even more remote right now, with elections for a new prime minister in May.

The public may no longer be listening to Netanyahu's claim that "it's inevitable Palestinians will have a self-ruled land." According to Netanyahu, territorial negotiations are the "easy part" — the real snag is how to regulate a future Palestinian military and weaponry.

"We don't want an eastern front where the unthinkable will happen," Netanyahu tells a visiting group. "In Jordan, it's one thing, but just outside Jerusalem — we're finished."

In Hebron, Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat cannot resist attacking the Israeli government.

"I don't want to remind you but I have to remind you that Netanyahu has wasted 27 months without doing anything," Arafat tells a group of visitors. "The majority of Israelis are for the peace process."

Hebron, sitting centrally in the West Bank, appears almost picturesque from afar. But up close, it's impossible to miss the many piles of trash strewn about, the abandoned look of many of the city's buildings and an obvious lack of any major industry or technology.

PLO headquarters are rundown. Inside, shabby red curtains block the windows and the loudspeaker system needs a few kicks to work.

Arafat wrestles with his microphone to get it to work. "Peace is our strategic choice," he says. "We are ready to suffer to implement it."

On trips to Hebron, tour operator Hassan takes groups shopping among the modern ruins. "Only if people see the human side of what's going on," he says, "can they decide what to do."