Two tales of a city: Jerusalem tour guided by a Palestinian and an Israeli

Tourists take part in the Dual Narrative tour lead by tour guides, Noor Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and Lana Zilberman Soloway, a Jewish seminary student, stand next to the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 4, 2019. Picture taken February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – On a Jerusalem plaza looking up at the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, a crowd gathers in front of two guides, listening attentively, a common sight in a city packed with pilgrims and tourists visiting its religious landmarks.

What is unusual is that one of the guides is Palestinian, one is Israeli, and they are taking turns to give their perspectives on the city known to Jews as Yerushalayim and to Arabs as al-Quds..

“We are in Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Jewish state. We are in one of the holiest places in the world for Christianity. And the keys are held by Muslim families,” said Israeli guide Lana Zilberman Soloway, who spoke first as the group reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus is believed to be buried. “And all three coexist at the same time.”

Her counterpart, Noor Awad, from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank just a few km (miles) away, took a different view of the status quo, noting that Muslims and Christians from the West Bank or Gaza need Israeli travel permits to worship here.

“For Palestinians, this is the capital of Palestine and the capital of their country,” said Awad, 28. “If you don’t get that permission, you can’t come actually here to pray. So the place is being used, and plays a lot into the two narratives and the conflict we have today.”

The two guides heard each other out politely, with the occasional quip or raised eyebrow. Two dozen tourists, mainly foreigners living in the city, peppered them with questions.

The company, MEJDI Tours, says its “Dual Narrative” tour was “created in partnership by Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Jews”. The weekly tours have been underway since last October.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital. The Old City and holy sites lie in the mainly Arab eastern half, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians say the eastern half is occupied land and must become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

At the heart of Old City, the tour came to the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

“Where the Dome of the Rock today is standing, the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven to talk to God,” Awad told the tour party, describing what Muslims consider the holiest spot on earth outside of the two Arabian cities Muhammad called home.

“That’s a very central event, somehow similar to the story of Moses talking to God from Mount Sinai.”

For Jews, it is the site of the biblical temple, destroyed by Babylonian conquerors, rebuilt and razed again under the Romans. The Western Wall, a restraint for the foundations built by Herod the Great 2000 years ago, is a sacred place of prayer.

“All the way down deep underground, underneath the golden dome, 5779 years ago, God created the world. 4,000 years ago we believe Abraham came to bind Isaac on that exact spot,” Zilberman Soloway said.

Dave Yedid, 26, a Jewish seminary student from Long Island, New York who came on the tour, said: “exactly what differs in the sort of Jewish Zionist narrative versus the Palestinian narrative is something I’ll take home with me.”

“I wanted to see those two side by side.”

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Peter Graff)

Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre to reopen after protest

A general view of the entrance and the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, will reopen its doors after Israel backtracked on Tuesday from a tax plan and draft property legislation that triggered a three-day protest.

The rare decision on Sunday by church leaders to close the ancient holy site, a favorite among tourists and pilgrims, with the busy Easter holiday approaching put extra pressure on Israel to re-evaluate and suspend the moves.

After receiving a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergy said the church would reopen Wednesday morning.

An Israeli committee led by cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi will negotiate with church representatives to try to resolve the dispute over plans to tax commercial properties owned by the church in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s statement said.

Church leaders, in a joint statement, welcomed the dialogue.

“After the constructive intervention of the prime minister, the churches look forward to engage with Minister Hanegbi, and with all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that our holy city, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) may live and thrive together.”

The Jerusalem Municipality, Netanyahu said, would suspend the tax collection actions it had taken in recent weeks.Mayor Nir Barkat has said the churches owed the city more than $180 million in property tax from their commercial holdings, adding that “houses of worship” would remain exempt.

Church leaders, in closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said church-owned businesses, which include a hotel and office space in Jerusalem, had enjoyed a tax exemption.

While the review is under way, work on legislation that would allow Israel to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches have sold to private real estate firms in recent years will also be suspended, Netanyahu said.

The declared aim of the bill, deemed “abhorrent” in a prior statement issued by church leaders, is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand.

The churches are major landowners in Jerusalem. They say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for church-owned land – sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to permanently cancel the proposed measures, which he said would “lead to escalating tension and to instability”.

A small minority of Palestinians are Christians, many of them in Bethlehem, the town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – near Jerusalem – where Jesus is believed to have been born.

(Reporting by Ori Lewis, Mustafa Abu Ghaneyeh and Nidal al-Mughrabi; writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump says he has new reasons to hope for Middle East peace

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had come to Israel from a weekend visit to Saudi Arabia with new reasons to hope that peace and stability could be achieved in the Middle East.

On the second leg of his first overseas trip as president, Trump was to hold talks separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The U.S. leader visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s walled Old City and was due to pray at Judaism’s Western Wall. He travels on Tuesday to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank at the end of a stopover lasting 28 hours.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara, as well as President Reuven Rivlin and members of the Israeli cabinet, were at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport to greet Trump and first lady Melania in a red carpet ceremony after what is believed to have been the first direct flight from Riyadh to Israel.

“During my travels in recent days, I have found new reasons for hope,” Trump said in a brief speech on arrival.

“We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace, but we can only get there working together. There is no other way,” he said.

Trump’s tour comes in the shadow of difficulties at home, where he is struggling to contain a scandal after firing James Comey as FBI director nearly two weeks ago. The trip ends on Saturday after visits to the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.

ARAB WELCOME

During his two days in Riyadh, Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, who focused on his desire to restrain Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they found wanting in the Republican president’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. He also announced $110 billion in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Israel shares the antipathy that many Arab states have toward Iran, seeing the Islamic Republic as a threat to its very existence.

“What’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East toward Israel,” Trump said in public remarks at a meeting in Jerusalem with Rivlin.

He also urged Iran to cease “its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias”.

But Iran’s freshly re-elected pragmatist president, Hassan Rouhani, said regional stability could not be achieved without Iran’s help, and accused Washington of supporting terrorism with its backing for rebels in Syria.

He said the summit in Saudi Arabia “had no political value, and will bear no results”.

“Who can say the region will experience total stability without Iran? Who fought against the terrorists? It was Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Syria. But who funded the terrorists?”

Rouhani also said Iran would continue a ballistic missile program that has already triggered U.S. sanctions, saying it was for defensive purposes only.

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) stands next to Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz at the plaza in front of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“ULTIMATE DEAL”

Earlier, at the airport, Netanyahu said Israel hoped Trump’s visit would be a “milestone on the path towards reconciliation and peace”.

But he also repeated his right-wing government’s political and security demands of the Palestinians, including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Trump has vowed to do whatever is necessary to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians — something he has called “the ultimate deal” — but has given little indication of how he could revive negotiations that collapsed in 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters en route to Tel Aviv that any three-way meeting between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas was for “a later date”.

When Trump met Abbas this month in Washington, he stopped shortly of explicitly recommitting his administration to a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, a long-standing foundation of U.S. policy.

Trump has also opted against an immediate move of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a longtime demand of Israel.

A senior administration official told Reuters last week that Trump remained committed to the measure, which he pledged in his election campaign, but would not announce such a move during this trip.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens as U.S. President Donald Trump (L) speaks during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Sunday, Israel authorized some economic concessions to the Palestinians that it said would improve civilian life in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and were intended to respond to Trump’s request for “confidence-building steps”.

The United States welcomed the move but the Palestinians said they had heard such promises before.

Trump will have visited significant centers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the end of his trip, a point that his aides say bolsters his argument that the fight against Islamist militancy is a battle between “good and evil”.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller)