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Old Jerusalem at epicenter of city's future

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Far from the Camp David negotiating table, Nava Malkiel opened her own dialogue on the fate of Jerusalem after a sleepless night worrying that the holy city and its shrines would be divided between Jews and Arabs.

"I came to the Wailing Wall to speak about what I felt in my heart," said the Orthodox Jewish woman at the remaining wall of the Temple Mount complex, the most sacred site in Judaism.

"We are inviting them to put the noose on our necks."

As the location for some of the most sacred Christian, Jewish and Muslim shrines, Jerusalem's Old City is the religious epicenter of stormy summit talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the future of the city.

Among devout Muslims, Jews and Christians inside its ancient walls, the language of politics gives way to claims to the Old City based on blood, war and history.

"Jerusalem belongs to us -- 3,000 years ago King David built it. He wasn't an Arab, he was a Jew. So how can they take it?" said butcher Zvi Kahana after praying at the Wailing Wall.

Kahana, whose curled earlocks and black top hat identify him as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, said he was fasting as part of an annual religious ritual to mark the conquest of Jerusalem by Roman Emperor Titus, who destroyed the Second Temple.

"It's one of the holiest places. We can't give it away," Kahana said. "Blood has flowed here. We lost so many people.

"Even if we make peace -- they hate us. There will never be peace," he said. A passing Arab man shouted: "Stop lying!"

"They hate us," he shrugged. "It will never work."

Deal in the works?

Israel captured Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed its Arab eastern half in a move not recognized internationally.

Palestinians demand East Jerusalem for the capital of a future independent state. Israel says the city is its "undivided, eternal" capital.

Reconciling those claims is seen as the key to any breakthrough at the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David.

The thought inflames the passions of the pious.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians say Jesus Christ was crucified, is in the Old City, as are the Wailing Wall and al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third most sacred shrine.

"The Old City is the spirit of any solution," said Armenian Orthodox Priest Father Pakrad, watching pilgrims invoke blessings as they pressed candles and prayer beads onto the salmon-colored stone laid out at the Holy Sepulchre church.

Worshippers murmured prayers in the church's vast, dim interior. The scent of rosewater hung heavy in the air.

"It's a very difficult issue, a very difficult issue. No one wants to compromise," said Father Pakrad.

One Camp David scenario has reportedly been splitting the Old City to give Palestinians control over al-Aqsa and the Muslim and Christian quarters, with the remaining Jewish and Armenian quarters and their shrines under Israeli sovereignty.

Orthodox Patriarchates in Jerusalem felt left out in that scenario and this week sent Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and President Bill Clinton a letter asking to be included in negotiations.

"They are not taking into consideration what the Christians think in a city whose importance for Christian entities is so great. The Armenians are not Jews, they are Christians," said the Armenian priest.

Muslim rights in Al-Aqsa

Some visitors note that the Old City appears already divided in spirit, with obvious Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters.

Plainclothes Israeli security guards, pistols tucked into their belts and walkie-talkies in their hands, escort Jewish children through the stone alleyways of the Muslim quarter.

Arab schoolchildren sarcastically call out "shalom, shalom!" -- the Hebrew greeting -- at Israeli soldiers on patrol.

"For 10 years I worked here and I never spoke to them," said Mahmoud Awasi, working in the shop below the apartment of Jewish residents. "They just go in and lock the doors."

For Yosra Awadi, a devout Muslim wearing a scarf tightly bound around her face and long robes, the bottom line was clear. "The summit is a failure. All Jerusalem including the Wall are Muslim and Palestinian. We wouldn't accept anything less."

Asked what she saw as the alternative to dividing the city, Yosra's friend Aisha gave her no time to answer.

"War," she said simply.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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