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Middle East

Fresh conflict serves up raw nerves at Jerusalem restaurant

As Israel cracked down against Palestinian stabbings this week, one Jerusalem restaurant was both a refuge and an awkward workplace as staff eyed each other over the daily grind of hummus. Daniella Cheslow reports.

Moshe Shrefler, 39, runs Azura restaurant with his three brothers and their father, Ezra, who emigrated from Diyarbakir in the Kurdish region of present-day Turkey in 1939. For more than half a century, Israelis have flocked to the homey spot in west Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market to eat hearty meat stews cooked for hours on kerosene burners.

Half the restaurant's 30 workers are Palestinian cooks, cleaners and dishwashers from east Jerusalem. The other half are Israeli wait staff.

"My Palestinian workers come here to make money. They've worked for me for many years, and I trust them," Shrefler said. "Of course one of them could snap, but what can I do? I have a business."

Since October, Palestinians have killed seven Israelis in a string of shootings, stabbings and vehicular attacks. At least 31 Palestinians, including assailants, have died in clashes with Israeli security forces. The violence has rattled Jerusalem, where police dispatched thousands of extra officers and the Israeli army erected checkpoints around several east Jerusalem neighborhoods.

Israeli and Palestinian brothers at work

On Wednesday, Azura was nearly deserted. Shrefler said he took six dishes off his menu to adjust to losing 80 percent of his business.

"I want to close at 4 and go home," Shrefler said. "I don't like the atmosphere here."

Israel Jerusalem Azura restaurant

Azura is well-known for its food, but has seen business drop as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues

Veteran Palestinian cook Mosab Almator, 31, said he was trying his best to ignore the news. Almator, of Shuafat refugee camp, said he has worked at Azura for 15 years. He joins Shrefler in the kitchen at 6 a.m. to prepare dishes like beans over rice, stewed beef lungs and Kurdish dumplings.

"Its true there's a war, but we are brothers at work," Almator said.

Dishwasher Rami Frukh, 28, said Azura paid more than most Palestinian restaurants. He said he noticed the heightened security in Jerusalem this week when police stopped him three times as he made his way to work from home in Wadi Joz, near Jerusalem's Old City.

"They stopped me for half an hour and searched me for a knife," he said. "Every minute there's another search."

Disparity between east and west

Two-thirds of Jerusalem's 850,000 residents are Jewish; the remainder are Palestinians who live in east Jerusalem neighborhoods that Israel captured in 1967. Most east Jerusalemites are not Israeli citizens and do not vote in Jerusalem's elections, but they pay city taxes and hold residency permits that entitle them to healthcare, national insurance payments and school. For decades, Palestinians have complained of inadequate city services, education and infrastructure that have contributed to a poverty rate of more than 70 percent in east Jerusalem.

The large disparity between the economies of east and west Jerusalem has pushed the two peoples into economic collaboration. According to the Israeli daily "Haaretz," half of all employed Palestinians in east Jerusalem work in the western area of the city or in Israel. They are the overwhelming majority of the city's hotel, construction and transportation workers.

"A closure of east Jerusalem would bring about an immediate and severe economic crisis in the entire city," wrote Nir Hasson, the newspaper's Jerusalem correspondent.

Working together does not always moderate tensions. On Tuesday Palestinian Alaa Abu Jamal, an employee of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq, rammed his van into a bus stop, killing an Israeli.

Israeli supermarket mogul Rami Levi, who employs mixed Palestinian and Jewish staff, told financial newspaper "Globes" on Wednesday he removed knives from the shelves at his stores.

Shrefler said he is not taking any special precautions in his kitchen.

Fear and understanding

Waitress Natalie Geva, 23, said she has been looking over her shoulder while walking to work in recent weeks from the Jewish neighborhood of Rehavia, but felt at home with her coworkers. Still, on Tuesday she asked each Palestinian cook whether he threw stones.

Israel Jerusalem Azura restaurant

Geva said she's afraid of walking to work amid the rash of stabbings

"Usually they say no but I know who did it," she said. "It sounds like I'm racist and afraid of Arabs. I'm not racist. But the situation is that you walk on the street and you just don't know."

Geva said she got to know more about Palestinians' lives by working at Azura and talking with the veteran cook Almator.

"I know about his life, and the education that he wants to give to his children," she said. "He works really hard for that. And I know that life for them is difficult."

Here for the food

The food at Azura is so celebrated that Israeli expatriate Barbara Arama, 72, made sure to stop for lunch while visiting from Florida.

"I don't think whether [Palestinian cooks] spit in my food or not," Arama said. "I eat it and I enjoy it. If I would think I wouldn't eat in any restaurant, because most of them are Palestinians."

As Arama chatted with her husband and brother, dishwasher Omar Abu Sbitan slipped out behind her on lunch break, checking his phone for news updates. He said he sympathized with Palestinians who attacked Israelis.

"I am with them. Without them we will not liberate the homeland," said Abu Sbitan, 17, of the Mount of Olives near the Old City. "Inshallah I will be like them."

His words rang hollow, though, as he said he was learning to cook.

"I'm satisfied here," Abu Sbitan said. "My boss is a good man."

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