Palestinian swimming coach Osama Judeh (right) and his Israeli counterpart Rotem Lehman at the YMCA swimming pool in Jerusalem, on November 23, 2014
Palestinian swimming coach Osama Judeh (right) and his Israeli counterpart Rotem Lehman at the YMCA swimming pool in Jerusalem, on November 23, 2014 © Gali Tibbon - AFP
Palestinian swimming coach Osama Judeh (right) and his Israeli counterpart Rotem Lehman at the YMCA swimming pool in Jerusalem, on November 23, 2014
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Delphine Matthieussent
Last updated: November 24, 2014

Palestinians and Israelis share their stories of living together, as friends, in Jerusalem

Banner Icon The two young Jerusalem shop assistants wear similar clothes and makeup. Only their names tell them apart as Israeli and Palestinian. But they know that talking about events outside might test their friendship.

Avital and Iman spend their days chatting at a budget clothes shop in west Jerusalem. They look almost identical, dressed from the store's "winter collection" and wearing their dark, straightened hair the same way.

But months of violence in the Holy City, including a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks against Israelis, have ramped up tensions. It is a subject Avital and Iman avoid discussing.

Last week, two Palestinians armed with a gun and meat cleavers killed five people at a synagogue – the culmination of months of tension, and after a series of apparent "lone-wolf" attacks, including hit-and-runs in which Palestinian drivers killed four people.

"We've been working together for a few months, and we've been getting along," said Iman, 21, from the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Safafa.

"But we avoid talking about what's been happening because we both know that conversation could end badly."

Twenty-two-year-old Avital, who lives in the Jewish neighbourhood of Talpiot, agrees that it is best to avoid certain topics.

BURNED ALIVE

"We don't talk about the incidents. There's what happens in the shop and what happens outside. The two are separate."

The violence in Jerusalem began in earnest in July, when Jewish extremists burned alive a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in apparent revenge for the killing of three Jewish teenagers in the occupied West Bank.

"We've been working together for a few months, and we've been getting along"

A bloody July-August war in the Gaza Strip, which killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 73 on the Israeli side, exacerbated tensions and resulted in near daily clashes between police and east Jerusalem youths.

On the surface, a fragile coexistence exists in public parks, shopping centres and workplaces, with Palestinians crossing from east to west Jerusalem to work in often menial jobs.

But other than out of professional or economic necessity, Israelis and Palestinians do not tend to mix, increasingly avoiding each other for fear of random or revenge attacks.

THE PROOF IS CUDDLES

"I'm scared of being assaulted," said Iman, who did not want to give her family name.

Raada, a Palestinian working at a Talpiot nursery, said Jewish parents now regard her with increasing suspicion.

"I learned that some parents demanded the Shin Bet (Israel's domestic security service) vet me," she said, also refusing to give her family name.

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"I've looked after Jewish children for years. These people's kids come in each morning and cuddle me. Is that not enough proof for them?"

The tension has even reached west Jerusalem's YMCA hotel and leisure centre opposite the historic King David Hotel. For years it has seen itself as a haven of intercommunal coexistence.

Israeli, Palestinian and foreign swimming coaches teach side by side at the YMCA pool.

"Things kicked off in the changing rooms this week," said Rotem Lehman, an Israeli children's swimming instructor.

"We heard several heated arguments" between the children. "And after the (synagogue) attack, the pool was empty for two days – no one came" because of safety fears, she said.

Lehman's colleague Osama Judeh, a Palestinian from east Jerusalem, said the animosity would never break their bond.

"Nothing could separate us. We've known each other far too long," he said, affectionately placing his arm around Lehman's shoulder.

Personnel chief Nuha Tannus hopes the intercommunal tension will not affect the YMCA.

"Employees and visitors will never sink that low," she said. "What scares me is that we'll be the target of a rightwing nutcase, either Israeli or Palestinian, who attacks us because we live together."

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