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Palestinian and Israeli Women Explore a 'Shared Jerusalem'

Cultural program this week is aimed at easing the dispute over the Holy City

Israeli and Palestinian women in the disputed city of Jerusalem have launched a grass-roots effort to promote peace where a formal peace process has faltered.

It is an unlikely pairing: Israelis from Bat Shalom (Daughters of Peace) in West Jerusalem and Palestinians from the Jerusalem Center for Women in East Jerusalem.

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But together they've formed Jerusalem Link, which is sponsoring an unprecedented symposium this week (June 17-21) called "Sharing Jerusalem: Two Capitals for Two States."

Predictably, there is controversy. Naomi Hazan, a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, laughs as she pages through a legal petition from a right-wing group that is trying to get Israel's highest court to stop Ms. Hazan and her friends from running their five-day program.

"It's nonsense," says Hazan, a university professor, browsing amusedly through the petition. "It says we've violated the Basic Law, which supports Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel."

More-powerful forces are annoyed about the nature of the conference, which was to be topped with a performance tomorrow by Irish singer Sinead O'Connor. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party, charges that Jerusalem Link received a permit only because it applied to hold a cultural event - not a political one.

"The municipality was not happy to have been duped, but they didn't want to make a bigger cause out of it by canceling it," says Joanne Malka, a spokeswoman for Mr. Olmert.

There will, after all, be no performance by Ms. O'Connor, who decided to drop the plans after receiving a death threat.

The rest of the show will go on. "Death threats are not going to silence us," says Salwa Hdeib-Qanam, head of the Palestinian group. "We will keep working together in the search for peace."

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The conference will include several art, music, and other events, but also political symposiums and alternative tours to show different perspectives on Jerusalem. The events are timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Israel's capture - and subsequent annexation - of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War.

But Sharing Jerusalem is meant to be more than a one-night concert and a few speeches. Through panel discussions that will include several Israeli Knesset members and former Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi, now a minister in President Yasser Arafat's cabinet, organizers hope to open a dialogue that could eventually map out a plan for future consideration.

Seeing Jerusalem in different ways

Focusing attention on the city is particularly important now, says Ms. Hdeib-Qanam, because of a variety of Israeli policies aimed at preventing the establishment of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. The timing also punctuates differences between European and American attitudes. While the European Union is the largest donor funding Sharing Jerusalem, the US Congress sparked Palestinian anger last week when it passed a resolution recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's indivisible capital.

During a reception at East Jerusalem's Ambassador Hotel, Hazan looks out to a neighborhood where few Israelis ever walk the streets. "Jerusalem is already divided by human walls, by psychological walls," she says. "What we're trying to do is to get Israelis to see areas they never consider as Jerusalem, and for Palestinians to see the areas they never consider Jerusalem."

The Middle East is at its core a patriarchal region where men usually dominate the political scene. But as leaders in dialogue groups and peace movements that far predate the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israeli and Palestinian women have grown accustomed to meeting locally - and sometimes brushing up against each other at international women's conferences. Still, it was not until 1995, at a Mediterranean women's caucus in Tunisia, that two organizations decided to team up as partners in Jerusalem Link.

'Too idealistic'?

But why did it take a group of women to begin tackling issues that elected officials are not discussing amid a stalemate in the peace negotiations? "We've always been gutsier than them," the raspy-voiced Hazan says with a shrug. "If we can find a way of living together, we women of Jerusalem, then we may find a way, men and women, to live together in Jerusalem."

Polls show that while a slight majority of Israelis are willing to give up sovereignty over some parts of Jerusalem, they overwhelmingly oppose having the city redivided by a wall. And few Palestinians say they would accept the idea of creating a separate capital called "al-Quds" outside the city limits with only a safe corridor to the Old City - a plan still considered too conciliatory for most Israelis' tastes.

Women of Jerusalem Link say that they're not advocating any kind of physical division. They want a binational Jerusalem without borders, a capital of two states without checkpoints.

That, say analysts, may be too idealistic. Yet not too long ago the suggestion that Israel should meet with the Palestine Liberation Organization was considered equally absurd.

"What we were saying for years is happening now," says Daphna Golan, the head of Bat Shalom. "I'm sure that in the end, there will be two capitals in Jerusalem. I think we started a debate, and that's my main goal: to get it on the agenda."

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