Island of Coexistence in Unlikely Jerusalem ‘Seam’ Neighborhood

A year ago French Hill gas station was firebombed by Palestinians; today Jewish merchant in local commercial center says, 'The only problem I have with my Arab customers is that there aren’t more of them.'

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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French Hill, Jerusalem, July 8, 2015. All Photos by Olivier Fitoussi
French Hill, Jerusalem, July 8, 2015. All Photos by Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Even considering the wave of violence in East Jerusalem at the time, this incident about a year ago was unusual: Dozens of masked young men came from Isawiyah to the gas station between the village and the French Hill neighborhood, set part of its convenience store on fire, and caused major damage to the station. That was one of the heights of violence in the wave of Jerusalem violence that broke out after the ghastly murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

This attack on the gas station contributed further to the name of French Hill as a seam neighborhood, whose residents suffer greatly from friction between the Arab and Jewish populations. But a visit to the commercial center in the heart of the neighborhood this week finds a different message:

The center has become a meeting place, rare in Jerusalem, between Jews and Arabs. According to business owners in the center, about 30 percent of the customers are Arabs, including students from nearby Hebrew University, Arabs from elsewhere in the country who live in the neighborhood, and Palestinians from the surrounding neighborhoods. Some of the businesses are even owned by Palestinians.

Fuad Abisan, 34, from the East Jerusalem neighborhood Ras al-Amud, opened a hummus shop in the center four months ago, which has become popular. “They gave me the feeling I had succeeded from the moment I opened,” he said with a smile. “There are tables with Jews and Arabs together. That’s something rare in Jerusalem,” he says.

Fuad Abisan.

Arab lawyer: 'We're looking for quality of life'

The Arabs who live in the neighborhood are mainly academics and professionals. We met attorney Hadil Younis, from the Wadi Ara area, in the long-established hairdressing shop operated by Arab beauticians. Younis lives with her family in the north Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Shoafat, but wants to buy an apartment in French Hill. “We’re looking for quality of life beyond what we have in our homes. Streets, sidewalks, a park for the kids, even the pizza and burger delivery man – everything French Hill has. What happened last year also took its toll; there were days when we couldn’t go out,” she says.

“The Arabs are a blessing to the neighborhood,” says Roni Knani, director of the Clalit HMO clinic in the commercial center.  

“The Arabs have high visibility in the commercial center, but there is no feeling that this creates a problem,” says Itai Litman, a social activist and resident of French Hill.

The center’s merchants say people from low-income Isawiyah come to the center to receive services they don’t have in their village – a post office, bank and supermarket. Residents of the better-off neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shoafat come for business meetings to the center’s coffee shop, or for a meal. “I like my Arab clients very much; they’re quality customers. ... The only problem I have with them is that there aren’t more of them,” says Moti Sasson, owner of the restaurant Tziona, which has been operating in the center for 30 years.

The head of the neighborhood administration, Eli Rosenfeld, is less optimistic, especially when it comes to relations with the nearby Palestinian neighborhoods. “No doubt there’s coexistence here, but it’s a tense quiet, the situation still hasn’t calmed down. On Saturday two weeks ago three teenagers from Isawiyah went up to a Jewish boy in the center, took his bike and ran away into the village. It’s a very delicate fabric and some people want to unravel it. We’re trying to preserve it,” Rosenfeld says.

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