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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 December 2007, 12:08 GMT
At home with Israelis and Palestinians
By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Jerusalem

The Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif site in East Jerusalem
Temple Mount is home to the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall
Following the Middle East peace conference in the US city of Annapolis, most Israelis and Palestinians yearn for a resolution that will allow them to live normal, peaceful lives.

On the stone paving around the Dome of the Rock - its golden dome gleaming in the autumn sunshine above the site that it shares with Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque - two 10-year-old boys were selling postcards to tourists.

And when there were no customers, they played with two small kittens, chasing them in the shadows of the trees nearby and picking them up and stroking them and smiling.

Below the mosque and the Dome of the Rock, there is the Jewish holy place, the Western Wall.

One day I saw an Orthodox Jew praying intently there, his face to the wall, and bowing rhythmically and rapidly as he prayed.

A moment later, he picked up his small daughter and, standing on the stone paving near the wall, he swung her round and round by her arms.

And he smiled and she laughed with delight.

I experienced a similar symmetry of affection and cheerfulness during two evenings here in the past few days: one with a family in a Jewish settlement, the other with a Palestinian family in mostly Arab East Jerusalem.

Jewish welcome

I was invited to the settlement for Shabbat evening, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, 24 hours of pause and reflection and family life and no work which starts at sundown on a Friday evening.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (L), President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R)  at the Annapolis conference
President Bush called the Annapolis summit a 'hopeful beginning'

My host took me to the synagogue and he promised me a lot of cheerful singing. And that is how it was.

The congregation prayed and chanted and sang facing Jerusalem.

On my left, a Moroccan Jew with his son on his lap smiled and shook my hand and asked me where I was from.

And on my right, my host gave me a quiet running commentary, and his three-year-old daughter wandered about playing with a small toy spring (a Slinky, it is called and, if you get it right, it will coil and uncoil down steps).

Then we all formed a line and shuffled along, hands on the shoulders of the man in front, swaying and singing.

A psychologist who came to settle here from New York gave a sermon about Jacob and Esau, and the lesson that Jews should gather food, offer gifts and prepare for war.

And my host and I walked back home, talking about the phenomenon of fragmentation, the regrettable effect that many aspects of modern life can have on the family and the community.

How for instance, the stress of insecure employment can undermine stability by generating unhealthy competition, individualism and isolation.

And then the Shabbat meal - my host's wife and their four daughters and three sons at a long table with napkins in rings.

I left both families thinking there could be real reconciliation if only the enmity they theoretically feel for each could be supplanted by their warmth and decency

But first he blessed each child one by one in order of age, holding their heads in his hands, murmuring a prayer and kissing them on the forehead.

And we tucked into humous and tahini and tomatoes in vinaigrette and aubergine salad with raw garlic and chicken soup with chicken neck and potatoes and carrots.

And another course - chicken breast with mushrooms and garlic - and pudding too - chocolate brownie cake baked by one of the girls.

There was wine as well - good local wine - and beer for the teenagers.

There was warm, loving family banter and prayers and singing, and we rounded the evening off playing table-tennis in the garage.

I drove back to my hotel in the cold night air, enriched by the love and laughter of their home.

Palestinian hospitality

Twenty-four hours later, in East Jerusalem, I was sitting at a Palestinian family table with my host and his wife and their two sons and daughters, eating tomato and cucumber salad, green bean salad, knuckle of lamb with rice and almonds, and fruit and mint tea.

Jews praying at the male section of the Western Wall

And the 10-year-old boy brought out a chess board and I beat him, but then he sat at the computer to play chess again and he won.

And we played the card game Uno where the aim is to end up with an empty hand.

And he giggled with delight when I trumped him with the card that meant he had to pick up two more, and I teased him that the extra cards (that meant he might lose) were a gift from me.

And throughout the entire game we spoke in French. He goes to a bilingual Arabic-French school.

And I drove back to my hotel in the cold night air, enriched by the love and laughter of their home.

We did not speak about Annapolis or the peace process at either meal but I left both thinking that there could be real reconciliation and peace if only the enmity that the two families theoretically feel for each could be supplanted by the heart-warming warmth and decency of each of them.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 1 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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