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Status of Jerusalem Top Issue in Mideast Peace Conference in US

In Annapolis, Maryland, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to restart long-stalled peace talks. As the Mideast peace conference convened in the U.S., the leaders each spoke of the long lists of issues they must address. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in his prepared remarks any deal should ensure Palestinians have East Jerusalem. In a major policy shift, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said he is ready to hand over some Arab neighborhoods in that section of the city.

VOA’s Jeff Swicord took a walk through Jerusalem's old city to get a sense of what people are thinking.

For thousands of years Jerusalem has been at the core of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. Many wars have been fought for control of the city, which has been conquered over 30 times in the past 3,000 years.

Today, the controversy over control of the city continues. Palestinian and Israeli leaders met in Annapolis, and the status of Jerusalem is one of the issues they discussed.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the sacred Old City, from Jordan during the Six Day War in 1967. The controversy over the city's future is never far from the surface.

Atallah Hanna is a Palestinian archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. He is often at odds with the Israeli government. "Jerusalem is very important to civilization and humanity. And it is very important for the Arab people and the Palestinian people. It has religious importance for the Christians and the Muslims only,” he says. “We are one people; one family and we are looking forward to ending the Israeli occupation, returning our people to Jerusalem, and building our state."

In Jerusalem's ancient Jewish quarter, Mark Bar-on, a Ukrainian Jew, owns a jewelry and souvenir shop. He strongly disagrees with the archbishop. His family was killed by the Nazis during World War II. Like many Jews from around the world, he came to Israel 35 years ago to help build a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its rightful capital.

"Why is everyone now speaking about dividing Jerusalem? Why before 1967 was Jerusalem not the center of this attention when it was left here for thousands of years with nobody paying much attention to it?” asks the storeowner. “Jerusalem is the capital of all Jewish people and we invested all of our time to return here and to rebuild it."

All Palestinians living in Israel hold Israeli identity cards. Without them, they could not live in or even enter Israel. If Arab East Jerusalem were not part of a new Palestinian state, people like Mousa Sayem, a Muslim who owns what he claims is the oldest coffee shop in Jerusalem, would be in a difficult situation. One option is that they would live in Israel as Palestinian citizens. Like most people in the coffee shop today, Mousa is confident that will never happen. "We don't spend our whole life in Israel, we will have our own state," he says emphatically.

Abrahem Shabane has been selling newspapers outside the Damascus Gate, in the Arab Quarter since the 1950s. He is also a Muslim and wants to see Jerusalem divided with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. But, most importantly, he wants to see Arabs and Jews live in peace.

"First of all we would like to live in peace. Jerusalem is an Arab city, it is a Palestinian city. Of course I want it to be a Palestinian city. And we don't mind if we live together with the Jews."

Over the weekend, the organization Jerusalem-One, a Jewish organization that lobbies for a united Jerusalem under Israeli control, took out an advertisement in the Jerusalem Post. In it, they reminded Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that in 1995 as mayor of Jerusalem, he signed a petition calling for an undivided Jerusalem.

All sides are feeling the pressure. And most agree this is the most difficult issue the two sides will face on the road to a peace agreement.