A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem's Alley of God

A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem's Alley of God

by Dion Nissenbaum


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It has been the home to priests and prostitutes, poets and spies. It has been the stage for an improbable flirtation between an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy living on opposite sides of the barbed wire that separated enemy nations. It has even been the scene of an unsolved international murder. This one-time shepherd's path between Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been a dividing line for decades. Arab families called it "al Mantiqa Haram." Jewish residents knew it as "shetach hefker." In both languages, in both Israel and Jordan, it meant the same thing: "the Forbidden Area." Peacekeepers that monitored the steep fault line dubbed it "Barbed Wire Alley." To folks on either side of the border, it was the same thing: A dangerous no-man's land separating warring nations and feuding cultures in the Middle East. The barbed wire came down in 1967. But it was soon supplanted by evermore formidable cultural, emotional and political barriers separating Arab and Jew.

For nearly two decades, coils of barbed wire ran right down the middle of what became Assael Street, marking the fissure between Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem and Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. In a beautiful narrative, Dion Nissenbaum's A Street Divided offers a more intimate look at one road at the heart of the conflict, where inches really do matter.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250072948
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

DION NISSENBAUM is a reporter with The Wall Street Journal's national security team. Previously, Dion served as a senior correspondent in Afghanistan, where he traveled around the country on his own and with the U.S. military. He spent four years based in Jerusalem, living on this dividing line. He has won several awards, including a National Press Club award for diplomatic correspondence. He has covered conflicts in many countries around the Middle East and South Asia. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife.

Read an Excerpt

A Street Divided

Stories from Jerusalem's Alley of God

By Dion Nissenbaum

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Dion Nissenbaum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8489-2



Many men dream of redrawing Middle East borders.

Eliyahu Goeli is one who actually has.

Singlehandedly, the young Iranian immigrant became one of the first people to stretch Israel's borders and grab a little more land for his new country. And not just any land. Eliyahu claimed more ground for Israel in Jerusalem, the city where the Jewish high priests could speak directly to God. There could be nothing more rewarding.

Expanding Israel's poorly defined boundary wasn't Eliyahu's first priority when he arrived in Israel in 1950. The Jewish father of four was just looking for someplace to live. He'd done well in Iran, where he made Arak, the region's popular licorice-flavored alcohol. With the growing surge of immigrants pouring into a new country struggling to find places for everyone, Eliyahu had to go to the edge of Israel to find a home.

There was a reason no one had taken over the concrete block house set above Israel's new border with Jordan. It seemed like a horrible place to live. There was no electricity or running water. Dusty winds whipped through open windows and coated the floors with a thin, grainy carpet of red sand blown up from the Judean Desert. There was no indoor bathroom, an inconvenience that would eventually trigger a major international quarrel requiring United Nations intervention. The house also stood in the crosshairs of two enemy nations. On one side, just past the pine trees to the west, Israeli soldiers kept 24-hour watch. On the other side, down the slope to the east, Jordanian Legionnaires, said by Israelis to have itchy trigger fingers, set up new border posts. Somehow, to Eliyahu, these things seemed like obstacles that could be overcome.

There was just one little wrinkle in Eliyahu's plan: The house he wanted to move into wasn't in Israel. It was part of the dangerous No Man's Land separating Israel and Jordan. Eliyahu was undeterred. He enlisted help from some Israeli soldiers to drag the barbed wire away from the house so he could move his family to the rim of his new country. It may have seemed like a small thing to Eliyahu at the time, but his actions helped set the stage for generations of international quarrels over the smallest of things.

In Eliyahu's case, it would be a volatile international dispute over an outdoor toilet. For others living along this short ridgeline, it would be a makeshift manhole cover, pigeons and freshly picked flowers. On this street, nothing was too small to fight over. Because Israel and Jordan were still arguing over exactly where the border between their two countries ran, the people living along the blurred lines knew every little thing did matter. The border lines were fluid. They were poorly defined. As Eliyahu proved, they were malleable. Where people lived, where they planted their trees, where they built their walls, all of it could change the border separating warring nations.

By design, Israel and Jordan had created long stretches of No Man's Land between the two countries to serve as a temporary buffer zone, separating enemy armies until seasoned diplomats could agree on permanent boundaries. That created open geographic wounds all along Israel's new borders. The most sensitive ones were in Jerusalem, where the lines severed streets, homes and neighborhoods. The zone cutting below Eliyahu's home would come to be known as Barbed Wire Alley.

The imperfect division of Jerusalem set the stage for late-night rescue missions to find runaway horses and special UN search parties sent to hunt for false teeth lost in No Man's Land. Israeli and Jordanian officers held special court hearings in No Man's Land to decide the fate of wayward cows that wandered from one country into the other. There were arguments over missing sheep. Lots of arguments over missing sheep. One Israeli tree-planting project in No Man's Land led to one of most surreal arguments ever to be fought at the UN Security Council before the world's most powerful nations.

Young couples divided by war started their marriages in Jerusalem's No Man's Land. At least one husband with a volcanic temper ignored the very real possibility that he might be killed by a sniper's bullet when he angrily stormed into No Man's Land after a violent argument with his estranged wife.

The problems were the creation of a pair of battlefield generals who had no intention of cementing the borders of Israel and Jordan when they drew the lines in 1948.

In the waning months of the war, Israeli and Arab League officers crowded into a small Jerusalem home, just outside the Old City walls, where they lay out a large map and began to argue over the lines. For the Israelis, the mapmaker was Moshe Dayan, the easily recognizable military commander with the iconic black eye patch, who was then leading the country's forces in and around Jerusalem. For the Arab Legion, it was Abdullah El-Tell, a tall commander wearing a red-and-white diamond-checked scarf carefully accenting his crisp uniform; he would become a vital emissary for leaders of the two nations.


It was November 30, 1948. Israel was seizing the advantage across the Middle East battlefields. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were on the run, heading for Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Israel had taken control of most of Jerusalem but didn't have the most important part: Arab forces had routed Israeli fighters from the Jewish Quarter and taken full control of the Old City. Israel and Jordan were ready to stop shooting at each other. And they were asking Dayan and Tell to create new maps to ensure that the guns would stay silent.

Sitting in the abandoned house that day in 1948, the two military commanders faced the difficult job of splitting Jerusalem. They laid the map out on an uneven surface as dozens of officers from both sides looked on. Dayan used a red grease pencil. Tell used a green one. Their lines rarely met. For the men, the lines were drawn only to reflect the general position of their forces on the front lines. They were supposed to be temporary cease-fire lines that would give diplomats some breathing room. The two men didn't expect their rough work to mark the final, firm border.

So, without much concern, the men created chunks of No Man's Land between their red and green lines. It amounted to nearly 750 acres of land in Jerusalem to keep fighting over. In some places, No Man's Land was wider than a football field. In others, it was thinner than a tight city alley.

One reason the line failed to completely end the fighting was that the map the military officers used wasn't detailed enough. When the map was magnified to settle land disputes, it became clear that the grease pencil lines weren't thin enough — about four millimeters thick in some places — to accurately fix the borders. Israel and Jordan would continue to argue over every millimeter. When the generals finished their work in 1948, the United Nations set up a special committee — the Mixed Armistice Commission, or MAC — to broker border disputes between Israel and Jordan. The UN team set up shop in the new No Man's Land near the heavily guarded border crossing between East and West Jerusalem. The office would be the scene of endless disputes over the serious and the surreal. The absurdity of the arguments seemed to grow each year. A rotating series of UN commissioners tried in vain to stop the bickering. But how could the commission settle disputes if Israel and Jordan couldn't agree on where one country ended and the other one began?

"It's not enough to have a line," said Raphael Israeli, a Hebrew University scholar who served for five years as an Israeli representative to the MAC. "The question is: What do you understand about the line?"

In the densest parts of Jerusalem, the "thick of the line" cut through the streets, cleaving buildings in half or enveloping them entirely. The border drawn by Tell around the Old City posed a particular conundrum for Jordan. Tell's line covered the Old City walls where Jordanian soldiers kept constant watch. That made it impossible for Jordan to agree to any interpretation of the border that accepted the inner edge of the line as the outer edge of Jordan's border. It would have created an absurd situation in which the walls of the Old City were in No Man's Land and the walled city itself was part of Jordan.

Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli politician who served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem soon after Israel captured the city in 1967, later described the map as a "cartographer's nightmare and a geographer's catastrophe."

The inability to resolve the issue led to years of fatal confrontations in No Man's Land. Israeli soldiers patrolling along the disputed lines were shot and killed by Jordanians hiding behind the archers' arrow slits in the Old City's stone ramparts. Jordanian soldiers were killed by Israeli snipers. Civilians on both sides who got too close to the borders were gunned down. Residents had to rush through Sniper's Alleys in Jerusalem and hope that the hidden soldiers watching them through rifle scopes wouldn't take aim as they ran for safety.

Israel and Jordan argued incessantly over No Man's Land. Israel suggested cutting the land in half and eliminating it entirely. Jordan refused.


Problems along the border only got worse as the years dragged on with no agreement on what to do about the problem. Snipers from both sides kept shooting. Civilians kept dying. The United Nations kept holding emergency meetings to try to contain the violence. At one special emergency UN meeting, called on April 23, 1953, Lt. Gen. William Riley, a decorated American Marine running the Jordan-Israel MAC, warned both countries that the situation was getting out of hand. The night before, someone had opened fire along the Jerusalem border. It wasn't clear who fired first, but the shooting quickly spread up and down the dividing line. Though there was now a cease-fire in place, Riley said an Israeli sniper had opened fire that morning. Riley was alarmed — and his frustration was evident as the meeting began.

People on both sides "are living in a state of terror," he told the Israeli and Jordanian officers.

"We have had casualties before, but in this case casualties of civilians living on both sides of the line were the worst I have ever seen in my time in this area," he said.

Riley chastised both sides for using the poorly drawn lines as an excuse for their deadly tit-for-tat arguments.

"You have the right to defend yourselves with fire, but the question of resorting to retaliatory fire if one side or the other opens fire is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the General Armistice Agreement," he told them. "I have urged the parties on numerous occasions to eliminate the No Man's Land. However, as this has not been done, the parties themselves must mutually agree on the steps that must be taken to eliminate some of the difficulties that face each side of this No Man's Land."

The head of Israel's delegation at the meeting, Lt. Col. Haim Gaon, rejected the American's perspective as out of touch with reality. Israelis, he told Riley, were living in an "impossible situation." Jordanian forces were killing civilians, and gangs were crossing the border into Israel to carry out unspeakable acts. He characterized the UN MAC as useless.

Riley knew it was futile to argue over who started what. No matter what one side complained about, the other side would respond with a complaint of its own. There seemed to be no end to the kinds of things the Israelis and Jordanians could fight over. At that point, all the general was trying to do was to prevent the spiral of violence from getting worse.

"I have always maintained that it was not a question of building a box score on votes or on decisions that affected one side or the other, but that the MAC was here for the purpose of finding ways and means of avoiding similar types of complaints in the future," Riley told the two delegations. "Now, if your MAC is not doing that, then of course you defeat the purpose of the MAC itself and the parties must be held responsible for failure to raise the question of avoiding future types of complaints by getting together and finding a way to stop them."

The commission might not be ideal, he said, but it was the only hope Israel and Jordan had of settling their disputes.

"It is the only official contact between the parties whereby each party can talk to the other in attempting to maintain a status quo until somebody finds a solution to the overall problem," he said.

The Jordanian delegation urged Riley to settle the issue at hand. They saw things one way. Israel saw them another. Why else was the United Nations here if not to break the deadlock?

"The Israelis believe they are innocent, we believe we are innocent," Lt. Col. Sadek Bey Shar said. "We shall not know until somebody tells us who is right. We are here to discuss matters, explain difficulties and find solutions. We are not here to waste our time, talk and go away with no results. We agree that Jerusalem is a very sensitive point. People live too close to each other. However, both our people should have the right to live in peace."

The Israelis were especially antagonistic toward Riley and refused to accept his suggestions. Riley pushed the two delegations to come up with a new plan to protect civilians living in No Man's Land. He thought it was time to stop killing people there. The problem was especially serious because neither side would agree on where, exactly, the No Man's Land borders started.

"There is a tacit agreement between the parties whereby a civilian can be fired upon when he enters No Man's Land, but even this action is not to be condoned and should be reduced to a minimum as firing of any kind is not justified under the terms of the General Armistice Agreement," Riley said. "I believe both sides could agree that if somebody enters No Man's Land, he should be picked up instead of being fired at."

The argument dragged on without driving toward any agreement. After three hours, the meeting broke up with no action taken to reduce tensions. It was a pattern that would repeat itself for weeks, months and years. Israel and Jordan would spend hours arguing over procedure and then run out of time to discuss the substantive incidents at hand. Figuring out who fired first always proved to be difficult. And there seemed to be no agreement on how to prevent more clashes.

"The question as to who opened fire first is almost impossible to ascertain," Riley said before the April 23, 1953, meeting broke up. "I am not interested in the question of who is right or who is wrong. I am interested in the parties reaching conclusions whereby they can avoid similar incidents in the future."

His appeals swayed no one. Six months later, Maj. Gen. Vagn Bennike, a famed member of the Danish resistance to Nazi rule in World War II who was then serving as chief of staff for the UN Truce Supervision Organization that oversaw the commission's work, warned the UN Security Council that the problems in the divided city were about to explode.

"Jerusalem, when tension increases between Israel and Jordan, is a dangerous powder keg," he wrote in a report to the UN Security Council in New York.

After years of circuitous arguments over the "width of the line," Israel and Jordan finally made one breakthrough in 1955: They agreed that their borders would stretch to the outer edge of the lines drawn by Dayan and Tell. That helped resolve one problem with the map. But it failed to address the bigger one created by the existence of No Man's Land in the first place.


In May 1956, Life magazine photojournalist David Rubinger got a call from an Israeli member of the MAC who had a tip: The United Nations was preparing for an unusual rescue mission in Jerusalem. They were coordinating a cease-fire so they could search for dentures lost in No Man's Land.


Excerpted from A Street Divided by Dion Nissenbaum. Copyright © 2015 Dion Nissenbaum. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Chapter One

No Man's Land

Chapter Two

Father of the Bull

Chapter Three

The Martyrs

Chapter Four

The Settlers

Chapter Five

The Collaborator

Chapter Six

The Peaceniks

Chapter Seven

The Good Arab

Chapter Eight

The Architects of Division

Epilogue: 'The Siege of Abu Tor'


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