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'A Street Divided' Explores The History Of An Arab-Israeli No Man's Land


In 1948, the battle for Jerusalem was raging. On one side, the army of the newly declared state of Israel. On the other, the kingdom of Jordan, which claims sovereignty over the historical city. In an effort to end the conflict, Israeli Commander Moshe Dayan sat down with his Jordanian counterpart, Abdullah el-Tell. With green and red pencils, they drew cease-fire lines on a map.

DION NISSENBAUM: They weren't thinking that this was going to be the final borders of their countries. They were just trying to stop the fighting. But in the middle of their lines was this no man's land, and essentially, it's lived there psychologically, culturally, politically ever since then.

MONTAGNE: Journalist Dion Nissenbaum is out with a history of that narrow dirt road known as Assael Street, now nestled into a mixed Arab-Israeli hillside neighborhood. And really, it's quite a rough, little place.

NISSENBAUM: It is. It's essentially - the top hillside is Jewish-Israeli and the rest of it, stretching down to a valley that's said to contain the gates of hell, is Palestinian. And so this is where you have the friction point.

MONTAGNE: During the '50s and most of the '60s, there was a barbed wire barrier that ran right down the middle the street, right, which you write led to some absurd episodes.

NISSENBAUM: Yeah, they roll out the barbed wire, and it got bigger as the years went on. And there was sort of a Romeo and Juliet story with an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy. There were flowers that were thrown, passed over from a Palestinian man to an Israeli woman who wanted the flowers 'cause they only grew on the bottom of the hillside. There was a fight over a toilet there. An Israeli family was building a toilet and the Jordanians complained that it was a violation of the terms of the border agreement.

MONTAGNE: And the U.N. called a cease-fire, especially to help some nuns find a woman's dentures.

NISSENBAUM: Yeah, this is one of the most amazing ones. On this no man's land was this French hospital. And there was a woman there who was dying of cancer and she had some dentures. And her dentures fall out, and the nuns asked the U.N. to declare a cease-fire so we can go find this dying woman's dentures. And surprisingly, Israel and Jordan actually agree. And so they have a French officer with a white flag who walks out into no man's land with a bunch of nuns, rummaging around in the dirt. And the fact that you had organize a cease-fire to find dentures just sort of showed the absurdities that were created by having this unsettled border.

MONTAGNE: And some of these forays happened up through the middle '60s. But almost overnight, in this 1967 war, the barbed wire came down. The families who had been separated for years but saw each other through the barbed wire grew curious and took the opportunity to meet. There's that moment that's the promise of peace.

NISSENBAUM: It was there. It was definitely there. And the Jewish-Israelis on the western side of the street did actually go out and proactively try and meet and make connections with the Palestinian families and the Palestinian families did the same. They invited them to their homes and their farms. And, you know, people would say this wasn't Arabs and Jews, this was Arabs and Jews together. And it was really a neighborhood where you could see the potential for the two to be friends, not enemies.

MONTAGNE: Although throughout this time, these families kept expanding. As you would write about a young woman Rachel, for instance, who migrated from Iran, and you watch her have many, many children. And on both sides, people are having 6, 7, 8 kids, and that, in turn, created a need for new space.

NISSENBAUM: Yeah. And these are the things that when you're looking at a conflict from the outside, you don't see these kinds of frustrations build. And the Israeli side of the street, people were able to build new high-rises. Construction companies came and bought out their homes. Rachel Machsomi and her family - one of the ones that had done this great proactive outreach to the Palestinians - were essentially encouraged to move to one of the major Israeli settlements outside of Jerusalem that's one of the major flashpoints.

And that move, while it was more economic than anything else, it sort of transformed them into hard-liners. They soured on the idea of a two-state solution. Whereas across the street, on the Palestinian side, all of these families are trying to get permits to build new homes, build developments. And they run into all of these legal obstacles and all these questions about whether they own the land, and so they build illegally. Almost everybody on that side of the street has some sort of illegal demolition order. So every day, these people are looking at the difference. Why is that family on the other side of the street able to build a high-rise when I can't?

MONTAGNE: And then the street itself has gotten a different name. The Palestinian youth on the street, they're naming it after a young man who was killed, who, in their eyes, is a martyr.

NISSENBAUM: Yeah. The family that has been on Assael Street the longest is the Palestinian Bazlamit family. Their home was in no man's land, and they refused to leave. And the patriarch of the family was killed in 1951 by an Israeli sniper in this area when it was so unsettled. He died on the hillside. They couldn't pull him off because the sniper kept shooting. His grandson in 1996 was getting married, and he was shot dead at Al-Aqsa Mosque. So after his death, the Palestinians on the street, instead of referring to it as Assael Street, referred to as the street of the martyr Jawad, essentially.

MONTAGNE: As you follow the street in the book, bit by bit, the street mirrored the sad experience of both sides, which is a little bit of warm relations, some special success somewhere. And then it all starts falling apart. Each side begins to see the other as the other.

NISSENBAUM: Exactly. Every time there's a new round of violence, you would see more walls go back up on homes, especially on the Jewish-Israeli side. There really is a very clear psychological divide. And the families that have lived there since the '50s still live across from each other and don't talk anymore for the most part. And these people have much more in common than they do to separate them.

But they're divided by what's happened in the region. And it creates this frustration, I think, for everybody that there won't ever be a solution. And we all get worn out reading about the never-ending conflict. And I do think Assael Street represents that hope and that loss of hope. I don't know it's gone forever. I'd love to see the street start bringing people together, but it's really up to the people that live there to make it happen.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

NISSENBAUM: Thank you so much for having for me.

MONTAGNE: Journalist Dion Nissenbaum. His new book is "A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem's Alley Of God." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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