Despite this city’s notoriously volatile divisions, Bassem Zidani had felt fairly comfortable working in a cafe on the Jewish side of town.
His commute was only a 10-minute walk from his impoverished neighborhood on the city’s Palestinian side. He was friendly with his Israeli boss. In fluent Hebrew, his conversations with Israeli co-workers centered on mostly breezy topics like the weather.
Then came a wave of Palestinian attacks, and a crackdown by Israeli authorities.
In recent weeks, 11 Israelis have been killed in scores of assaults involving knives, screwdrivers and even a meat cleaver. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli response to the unrest, which has been especially intense in Jerusalem and brought an already fragile co-existence here to a breaking point.
“It’s become frightening for all of us,” said Zidani, 28, a resident of the Silwan area.
Jerusalem’s Palestinians, who number about 320,000, form the city’s blue-collar backbone, with many of them working as chefs, bus drivers, car mechanics and in hotels on the Jewish side of town. But the crackdown — involving checkpoints, military patrols and arrest raids in Palestinian areas — has been especially troublesome for them.
The checkpoints have turned Zidani’s commute into an hour — long ordeal, he said.
He also said that he recently saw group of right-wing Israelis demonstrating near the cafe. The men roughed up at least two Palestinian employees of a nearby restaurant, according to several witnesses including Zidani, who hid inside the cafe to avoid assault.
Some Palestinians have quit their jobs for fear of such attacks.
“I don’t feel safe with them,” said Firas Tutanji, 23, a Palestinian, who this month left his job stocking shelves at a supermarket in an Israeli town just north of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, a city of 800,000 people, is one of the most sensitive issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Geographically, the city is roughly divided between Israelis on the wealthier west side and Palestinians in the east, north and south, which are lumped together as East Jerusalem. Complicating the boundaries are Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, as well as in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which are widely considered to be major obstacles to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Disputes over a mutually claimed holy compound in the Old City — known to Jews as the Temple Mount and as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims — is a source of constant friction and a driver of the current round of violence.
And there is the politics of it all. Although Palestinians in Jerusalem pay taxes and receive state benefits such as health care, most refuse to vote in municipal elections and decline taking Israeli citizenship. They see Israel as a foreign occupier of their areas of the city, which it captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed — a move not recognized internationally.
Israeli human rights groups say residents of Palestinian areas face discrimination, including a lack of public spending on infrastructure and harsh zoning restrictions that can result in the demolition of homes and businesses that are considered to be illegally built. Jewish-owned structures in the city do not face such strict measures, according to the rights groups.
But jobs are scarce in East Jerusalem. So the city’s Palestinian residents turn to Israeli establishments for work.
“When you go to work, you of course go knowing that you are working for the people who are occupying you and depriving you of your rights,” said Zidani, who works as a cook. “But they are people, too. We can be friendly.”
Despite his fear of violence, he continues to work on Jerusalem’s west end because he needs money for his wedding that he plans to hold in the coming months.
“There aren’t many options for Palestinians,” Zidani said.
Micha Meir, a 61-year-old Israeli, rarely sets foot in Palestinian areas for fear of attack. He fundamentally disagrees with Palestinian nationalist politics. But because of the recent violence, he said he has taken extra precautions to protect the Palestinian waiters and dishwashers at his small restaurant that sells hummus and falafel on the west end of town.
“I call taxis at night, which I pay for, to make sure they get home safely,” said Meir, who speaks Arabic fluently. “They are my friends.”
According to some estimates, about three-quarters of those employed in West Jerusalem’s hotel industry are Palestinians from the city. Similarly large numbers of Palestinians work in other sectors of the west side’s economy, such as in construction and transportation. They have had more work opportunities in recent years because Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have been cut off from Israel by enhanced entry-permit systems and walls of concrete and barbed wire, said Ron Gerlitz, co-director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel. Israel raised those barriers in response to suicide bombings during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago.
“The Jerusalem economy simply can’t survive without the Palestinians of East Jerusalem working in West Jerusalem,” Gerlitz said.
But interaction between the two communities is generally not welcome by either side, especially since the recent surge of violence.
For Israelis, it’s a fear of attacks that they say are fed by general Palestinian incitement. For Palestinians, it’s a fear of vigilante assaults that they say have been encouraged by some Israeli officials.
Last month, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, called on Israelis to carry arms. Barkat himself was filmed walking around town with what he later said was a Glock 23 handgun. Yair Lapid, a centrist Israeli politician, implored Israelis to “shoot to kill anyone who pulls out a knife or screwdriver.”
Last month, an Eritrean man apparently mistaken for a Palestinian assailant died after being shot by a security guard and then attacked by a mob.
Mohammed Hadia, 40, a Palestinian taxi driver, said he now avoids speaking Arabic in front of Israeli customers. Rather than risk drawing attention by right-wing extremists who may happen to step into his vehicle, he said, it is “safer just be quiet.”