Points of view

Arabs and Jews strike a balance in Nof Zion, a new Jewish neighborhood surrounded by Jebl Mukaber.

d (photo credit: d)
(photo credit: d)
'The first day we were here was Rosh Hodesh. We woke up and we didn't even need to think about which way to face when we prayed," says Joe Polansky.
Joe and Rozanne Polansky, married 44 years, made aliya in November. They moved from New York to Nof Zion, Jerusalem's newest neighborhood developed by a private company. The Polanskys' bedroom window looks out on one of the most stunning views of Jerusalem: rolling hills covered with squat, square houses, the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock gleaming in the sunlight, surrounded by the Old City walls.
When the residents of Nof Zion chat on the brick sidewalks, they stand side by side and face the view instead of each other. They can't help checking the view mid-conversation as if to remind themselves that the breathtaking beauty hasn't disappeared.
Just down the hill from the Haas Promenade, the new Nof Zion apartment complex has housed 70 families for almost half a year. The residents are in the midst of creating a Jewish community in an area surrounded by Arabs from the neighborhood of Jebl Mukaber.
"It's not true that we're surrounded on all sides!" Polansky says emphatically. "Two and a half sides."
The seven apartment buildings of Nof Zion are just the first phase of construction for the privately built neighborhood. The new buildings, up the hill from the current apartments, will touch the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv, providing a link to other Jewish neighborhoods that's both physical and psychological. Residents claim they're practically an extension of Armon Hanatziv, firmly insisting they live in eastern, not east, Jerusalem.
"This is our holy land. We make a statement by living here," says Miriam, a lawyer from Gush Dan who is checking out the neighborhood and intends to purchase a unit in the next stage of construction. "I believe that Jews and Arabs can live well together as neighbors and as human beings. Because if I come here, I'm not coming at anyone else's expense. It's private land that was purchased more than 50 years ago - I'm not sitting here on Arab land or land that was taken from Arabs."
Digal Investments and Holdings owns the land and the buildings of Nof Zion. The company purchased the area from private Jewish owners in the late 1980s, according to Digal's director-general Yehuda Levy. The proprietors had owned the land since before the founding of the state, Levy explains.
In 2006, Jebl Mukaber resident Kamel Shahen challenged some of the eastern parts of the Nof Zion complex, which he claimed encroached on his family land. His family is one of three that received compensation from Digal, but many Jebl Mukaber residents weren't satisfied that the ownership issues had been properly resolved.
"There were problems, but no one talks about it now. What happened was they took the land and built on it, and no one could do anything," says Alasi Motaz, a 21-year-old Jebl Mukaber resident who works in a kiosk abutting the new apartments. Digal Investments has always insisted that its project was purely commercial, not politically oriented. "[Nof Zion] isn't in an Arab neighborhood," Levy says. "There are some Arab houses close by."
Most of the new Jewish residents shy away from the political or ideological reasons for living there. They say they're attracted by the quiet, the relative affordability, the view. "Because we're first, the media is trying to mold us into something right wing. It looks that way, but I don't feel that way," says H., a government worker who moved there from Baka with his son.
FUTURE PLANS for the Nof Zion complex include a total of 400 apartments, two synagogues, a hotel, a Sephardi cultural center, mikve, community center, small shopping area and sports center with pool. Apartments range from $400,000 to $600,000 for three to five rooms, about half the price of an apartment in central Jerusalem. The complex was originally marketed to foreigners as vacation homes, but today about 80 percent of the apartments are occupied by Israelis, mostly Religious Zionists with young families. The complex is thriving. The neighbors organized a nursery school for the youngest of the 60 kids who have moved into the neighborhood since the summer. Some talk of a local school in the future, depending how quickly the next stage of apartments is built. For now, the parents have organized elaborate car pool systems to take their children to schools in Talpiot and Arnona.
"Really, it started from nothing. People didn't even know each other," says Uri Dopolt, a new resident who moved there from the Mount of Olives. "They came on their own, and slowly they're building. If it's activities during the week or during Shabbat, if it's a community center or a synagogue that they're going to build together, you can see partnerships through all of these things."
A cultural committee has started offering ceramics workshops with a resident who is a professional artist and has a kiln in her apartment. Pilates classes for women take place every Tuesday, and a kiddush is sponsored by a different person every Saturday after services. Three afternoons a week, there's a men's kollel in an empty apartment that's serving as the temporary synagogue while the new synagogue is being built.
"For a small place, there are quite a lot of activities. We're trying to do them all and there's almost no time!" says Shai Cooperman, a father of four who moved from Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Nof Zion made the news two months ago when it hosted a group of 50 American Jews on a home-buying mission to Judea and Samaria. They were accompanied by New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who was toying with the idea of purchasing a home in Nof Zion. The group attended a cornerstone-laying ceremony in the neighborhood, just days after President Barack Obama's condemnation of all construction in east Jerusalem.
The community isn't without its birth pangs. The chief complaint is the lack of bus service, meaning cars are essential for everything from grocery shopping to banking. "When we bought here, we didn't think the municipality would deny us certain basic services," says Rozanne Polansky. "Basic services which are available to anyone else in this country, like a bus."
Residents have started posting on a community listserv to find car pool options to get to school, work and amenities in the city. But it may not be long before Egged reaches their corner of the city. A Jerusalem municipality spokesperson says they are working with Egged to bring bus service to the area. Line 43, which serves Abu Tor, Silwan, Ras al-Amud and the Western Wall, may be extended to Nof Zion starting in February. Jebl Mukaber is serviced by Palestinian buses, but Egged buses only go as far as the Haas Promenade.
Residents are also fighting with the municipality to pay the same arnona (property tax) as their Arab neighbors. Jebl Mukaber residents pay Zone D arnona, the cheapest, while the municipality initially classified Nof Zion as a Zone B area. Motti Mintzer, a semi-retired lawyer and one of the first people to move into Nof Zion, challenged the classification and had the arnona rate reduced to Zone C.
"We expect that we would be treated the same by municipality," says Mintzer. "Our municipal services in eastern Jerusalem are not higher than the services rendered by the municipality to the neighboring Arabs."
A municipal spokesman confirmed that Nof Zion is Zone C and Jebl Mukaber is Zone D, adding that this classification is still awaiting the approval of the Interior and Finance ministries.
The road leading to Nof Zion passes by the promenade and the Tolerance Monument, a bronze olive tree growing between a broken column, next to a UN base. Just past the base, the view changes abruptly from verdant mountain forest to harsh, barren desert as the hills of the Judean Desert come into view. The Dead Sea and the distant Jordanian mountains are visible most days.
"Head downhill and you'll know the buildings when you see them," Rozanne Polansky says when she gives directions. The gleaming five-story buildings seem at odds with the winding dirt paths that are still used by herds of goats and children riding donkeys.
JEBL MUKABER is a solidly middle-class Arab neighborhood. Satellite dishes, as well as goat and chicken enclosures, are common at many of the two-story houses. Jebl Mukaber has a reputation as a more relaxed, low-key neighborhood, partly due to its relative affluence compared with other Arab areas. The neighborhood of 25,000 is divided by the security barrier, with 12,000 residents on the Jerusalem side. Arab residents expressed shock, at least to the media, when Jebl Mukaber resident Ala Abu Dhaim burst into the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in March 2008, killing eight students and wounding nine. Just two months after the yeshiva attack, kiosk owner Hassan Zachika told a Jerusalem Post reporter that he'd rather the future Jewish residents of Nof Zion not shop at his store. Since then, things have calmed down.
"There are a few people from here and from below that come to buy things here," says Alasi Motaz, who works at another kiosk. "I have no problems. If someone doesn't want to buy here, that's up to him. I know quite a few people that come to buy here. I have a few friends among them, and we don't have any problems."
The sunrise over the hills is probably the most breathtaking time of day in the neighborhood, but sunset isn't too shabby: streaks of pink and orange against a dark blue sky, the white stones of the Old City of Jerusalem spread across the hills below. The silence that makes the area feel so rural is broken by the muezzin's call as the last shadows fade. The call to prayer rolls across the wadi with an intensity not heard in most Jewish neighborhoods, serving as a jarring reminder of Nof Zion's location.
"Everyone wants to live a normal life," says Tofik Zahaika, a life-long resident of Jebl Mukaber and neighborhood car mechanic whose garage is next to the new apartments. "Everyone should have their own life and not bother each other. I don't speak for everyone, I'm just one man. But if they don't bother me, they don't concern me."
Jewish residents toss around words like "coexistence" and "tolerance," but what everyone really wants is quiet. The mood among the Arabs of Jebl Mukaber is one of resigned acceptance: "They came to us, we didn't come to them. This isn't their place," Zahaika says.
But now that they're here, it makes more sense just to live quietly. "We say hello to each other, but we're on our side and they're on their side. We don't want problems - problems don't bring anything," says Motaz.
The newly paved road through the complex ends in a cul-de-sac just after the last apartment. A dirt road leads from the pavement to the house of Amud Ayeshe, who lives in a two-story house with almost 30 relatives. "We've been waiting since 1986 to get a building permit," says Wail Ayeshe, 35, Amud's son. "Every eight years the laws change. We've wasted millions. But here," he points to the brand new buildings, "here they're allowed to build; there, we're forbidden to build."
There's bitterness that the new Jewish complex immediately got garbage collection, a service the Jebl Mukaber residents have been asking the municipality about for years.
Digal Investments claim to have improved existing infrastructure in the area, including installing sewage pipes and paving roads in the neighborhood as goodwill gestures. But residents of Jebl Mukaber claim they haven't had any improvements. "They did it just for the Jews," says Nadia Ayeshe, Amud's daughter and mother of five. "The roads they say they paved further down, they did half-done work. The next time it rains, it will wash away."
THEY TALK about a few problems at the beginning of the development, arguments over who can park where and where the kids can play. Normal neighborhood arguments, except here both sides have called the police as simmering discontent began to break the surface. The most serious event happened a few months ago when a pregnant Arab woman and a Nof Zion guard got into a small fender bender. Both parties were fine, but witnesses say people from both groups started yelling at each other and it almost degenerated into a small riot.
Another Nof Zion guard confides that he thinks it's just a matter of time before the two sides reach a breaking point. "If there's an intifada, it will affect this place first," he says.
A fluent Arabic speaker with friends from Jebl Mukaber, he says most of the hatred was directed at the guards for what they represent rather than the individual residents. "The 16-, 17-year-olds think I can't understand what they say about me, but I do."
Both sides are treading carefully, trying to maintain a delicate balance that allows them to concentrate on day-to-day activities. The old neighborhood does its best to ignore the elephant in their midst, while the new residents go about building a vibrant community, preoccupied with questions of how often to clean the hallways, which street lights stay on at night, and who picks up the kids from school.