JERUSALEM — Jerusalem is a deceptively beautiful city.
Almost every building, from modest home to grandest center of government, is made of white Jerusalem limestone. In the late afternoon, as the sun starts to slip behind the hills, the stone turns to gold and the entire city is bathed in a serene, otherworldly light.
But Jerusalem is anything but peaceful. Sacred to the world's three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — it has been among the most fought-over places on Earth. And the battles continue today, not with mighty armies but with lawyers, judges and urban planners.
"See this,'' says Mohammed Al-Kurd, displaying a huge color photo of a man raising his arm, seemingly in anger. "These are settlers, they are trying to hurt our children.''
Mohammed is very media-savvy for a 13-year-old. But it's not hard to see why. Over the past year, hundreds of journalists and peace activists have descended on his East Jerusalem neighborhood to hear Palestinians complain that they are being evicted from their homes by Jews determined to deny them a nation and capital of their own.
In almost perfect English, Mohammed describes how Jewish settlers moved into the house his grandmother built. How the settlers dumped all the furniture outside. How the large Al-Kurd family is now crowded into another house next door that they fear they might lose any day.
"See,'' says Mohammed, pointing to flaking plaster. "We cannot fix our house because at any moment they might come to evict us.''
Israeli authorities say the houses were illegally built by Palestinians; each side brandishes documents purporting to show it is in the right and the other side is in the wrong. But there is no disputing that the stakes are tremendous.
East Jerusalem is predominantly Arab and is the part of Jerusalem that Palestinians envision for their future capital. It contains the Old City with its sacred Muslim sites: al-Aqsa Mosque and the familiar gold-topped Dome of the Rock.
But the Old City also contains the holiest site in Judaism: Temple Mount, which Jews believe is the focal point of creation, and the place where they built their first and second temples.
As Barack Obama joins a growing line of U.S. presidents who have pushed Israelis and Palestinians to make peace, which side ends up in control of East Jerusalem remains possibly the most intractable issue of all.
Demographically, Palestinians would seem to have the upper hand.
The 1948 Mideast War ended with Israel's independence, but also a divided Jerusalem. Israel controlled the larger western half; Jordan, the smaller eastern half. Over the next 19 years, Jewish life in East Jerusalem virtually came to an end.
In the 1967 Mideast War, Jewish paratroopers burst through the Lion's Gate of the Old City and captured the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple. All of Jerusalem was now under Israeli control, and Jews quickly began moving back into the eastern part of the city.
Today, Jews make up almost two-thirds of Jerusalem's overall population. But due largely to their high birth rate, Palestinians as of 2008 outnumbered Jews in East Jerusalem by 250,000 to 180,000.
For Israel, which considers Jerusalem its "eternal and indivisible'' capital, that big and presumably growing gap signals trouble. And it is working hard to boost Jewish numbers and, critics say, reduce Palestinian ones.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, some 2,000 Jews have moved into strategically located homes in Palestinian neighborhoods around the Old City. Among them: Sheikh Jarrah, where 13-year-old Mohammed and other members of the Al-Kurd family have lived since 1956.
Refugees then from the new nation of Israel, the Al-Kurds and 27 other Palestinian families benefited from a humanitarian program done in cooperation between Jordan and the United Nations. In exchange for giving up their U.N. refugees' ration cards, they were allowed to rent homes in Sheikh Jarrah for three years, at which point they were supposed to get legal title.
But they never did. Following the 1967 war, Sheikh Jarrah fell under Israeli authority. Jewish pro-settlement groups claimed that the area, purportedly the burial site of an ancient rabbi, had been owned by Jews before it was captured by Jordan.
Thus followed a series of legal battles over Sheikh Jarrah that culminated in two Palestinian families — the Hanouns and the Al-Ghawis — being evicted from their homes in August 2009.
Today, several Israeli flags hang from the eaves of the house that Miriam Al-Ghawi moved into as an Arab bride nearly 30 years ago. On the roof is a giant sculpture that resembles a menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
Al-Ghawi and her family have rented another place. But they frequently return to their old neighborhood, to visit and to protest what they call their illegal eviction.
"Ask him if he can show you any documents that this house is his,'' Al-Ghawi demands of a reporter as a young Jewish man, small child in arms, hurries toward the front door. He says his name is Ziggy, his accent identifies him as American, and he gives a cell phone number, indicating he might talk later. He doesn't return a phone call.
Across the street is another house now occupied by Jews. Refqa Al-Kurd built it for one of her sons 10 years ago and acknowledges it was an illegal structure. But, she says, that's because Palestinians have a near-impossible time getting construction permits.
"They don't want any Arabs in Jerusalem,'' Mrs. Al-Kurd says in a voice far stronger than her 87 years might suggest. She has stopped patronizing a nearby Jewish-owned grocery: "They're stealing our land. They're stealing our homes. I will never buy anything from them again.''
The Palestinians' cause has been taken up by peace activists, who nightly sleep in a tent near Mrs. Al-Kurd's home to protect the family from what they say is harassment by the Jewish settlers. "Palestinians — You are not alone,'' reads spray-painted graffiti.
Similar scenes are playing out in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Life in Silwan, home to 60,000 Palestinians and 500 Jews, "has become unbearable for Jews and Arabs alike,'' the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reports. Jewish settlers complain they are unable to leave home without being stoned; Palestinians "suffer the heavy hand of the police and the settler security guards.''
Many Israelis outside of Jerusalem have little particular love for the city, which they consider poor and too religiously conservative. But almost all Israelis agree that the Old City, with its Jewish holy sites, belongs to Israel. Palestinians, they say, have played a similar game of boosting their numbers in East Jerusalem — in the Palestinians' case, through marriages of convenience that enable them to gain Israeli IDs and benefits.
One commentator suggested that Israel keep the Old City, but give the rest of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
"Israel is paying a dual price: It's not recognized (internationally) as having rights in the city's Arab sections, yet at the same time it financially supports the residents of these areas,'' Guy Bechor wrote in ynetnews.com. "The time has come to correct it now; this absurd situation cannot go on any longer.''
There are still those who think Jews and Arabs can live side by side in peace in this tormented city. A group of Israeli and Palestinian public figures last spring proposed a mixed neighborhood that would feature 800 homes and a hotel district. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents international Mideast peace mediators, reportedly supports the project.
"What is necessary is to find models for living together,'' said Meir Margalit, a member of Jerusalem's city council. "We are sowing seeds here that can go far.''
Few people — either Jews or Arabs — are betting on it.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.