JERUSALEM—For nearly 60 years, before it even had a name, Jerusalem's Assaell Street has been the dividing line between Arab and Jew.
For Israel's first 19 years, coils of barbed wire cut across what was then a rocky ridge sprinkled with stone houses. Israeli-controlled Jerusalem lay to the west; Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem, with the Old City in the distance, stretched down to the east.
Arabs called it "ilmantiqa haram," the forbidden area. Their Jewish neighbors called it "shetach hefker," the abandoned area. To both, it was the same thing: a dangerous no man's land between warring nations.
Then, on June 5, 1967—after months of rising tensions and with the Egyptian army massing in Sinai—Israel struck, and in six days won control of Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and East Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan River from Jordan.
On Assaell Street, the rusting barbed wire soon was gone. But not the divisions.
Israel's stunning victory in the Six-Day War changed the strategic balance of power in the Middle East. But it didn't bring peace.
In the four decades since, at least seven wars have convulsed the region. Jordan and Egypt have recognized Israel, Egypt recovered the Sinai and a nascent Palestinian government oversees the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Peace remains elusive, however, even on Assaell Street. There, as in many other places, the physical obstacles that once divided Arab and Jew have been supplanted by even more insurmountable psychological barriers.
In a region where the battle for control often is measured in inches, the story of Assaell Street typifies the cycles of hope and despair that fuel the wider Middle East conflict.
Neighborhood squabbles that might blow over quickly in some American suburb are merely the latest installments in centuries-old rivalries, grudges and humiliations. Many Palestinians have never accepted Israel's claim that a united Jerusalem is its capital; many Israelis have never accepted the Palestinians' claim that it's the capital of their nation, too.
On Assaell Street, resolving disputes requires its own brand of diplomacy. Neighbors have to navigate two cultures, bridge two languages and overcome long-standing resentments. Some of them have given up. The newest Jewish residents see a chance to repair the breach.
No two neighbors capture the arc better than Nawal Bazlamit and Rachel Machsomi. The two women raised their young families a few steps from each other on Assaell Street, became friends of sorts, but now live in diverging worlds.
Nawal was born in 1943 in Jerusalem's Old City. She and seven Palestinian siblings were raised on Chain Street, a narrow cobblestone pathway that leads to the entrance to the golden Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
When she turned 14, she married Zakaria Bazlamit, and the couple moved into his family home on the Jordanian side of the barbed wire.
At the time, Assaell was nothing more than a low-sloping ridgeline cluttered with boulders and barbed wire, with no more than a dozen small homes on either side.
On the Jordanian side, many families had moved away as the Jordanian military took over homes as border outposts. The dangers of living in this no man's land were ever present: An Israeli sniper shot and killed Zakaria's father in 1952 while he tended grapevines in their front yard.
Haim and Rachel Machsomi moved to the street in 1965 as part of an Israeli effort to resettle poor Jewish immigrants. The two were distant cousins from Iran who'd moved to Israel with their families when they were teenagers in the early 1950s.
Eventually, Haim occasionally convinced the young Arab mothers on the other side to throw him some of their fresh-baked bread. One time, Rachel persuaded a man across the barbed wire to cut some flowers that grew only on the Jordanian side. The couple raised 11 children there; their native Farsi helped them understand Arabic.
When Israel won control of the neighborhood during the Six-Day War, Haim and Rachel Machsomi were among the first to build bridges. She'd sit for hours, knitting with an Arab mother she knew as Umm Ziad, "the mother of Ziad." Rachel Machsomi taught Umm Ziad some Hebrew; Umm Ziad taught her some Arabic.
When Israel embarked on its controversial campaign to establish Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Machsomis were among the first to take part. In 1986, as the movement was taking off, the couple moved to Maale Adumim, one of the largest and most contentious West Bank settlements, on a hilltop between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
Even after the Machsomis moved to Maale Adumim, the Bazlamits stayed in touch for some years. They even spent time with them in the settlement.
By coincidence, the growing Bazlamit family bought property in 1993 on an adjacent hillside in Bethany, the ancient town also known as Azariya, where the Bible says Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. They built a three-story apartment building there for four of their sons, one of whom opened a small carpentry business on the ground floor.
In 2003, Israel began building its disputed separation barrier to combat a Palestinian suicide-bombing campaign. It cut through the Bazlamits' backyard, putting their new home outside the towering concrete wall.
If the Bazlamits wanted to keep their status as Jerusalem residents, they'd have to move inside the wall. So it was back to Assael Street, where the family home now is crowded with nearly 50 children, grandchildren and daughters-in-law.
"We cannot live like this," Nawal Bazlamit said. "They have us surrounded. It's difficult to coexist. We're bitter. We're upset. We used to say that the Jews and Israelis were good people. Now, things have changed. Now, we're not a family."
Rachel Machsomi, too, harbors few thoughts of reconciliation. What good will she had toward Palestinians vanished in the stone-throwing days of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the 1980s.
"I don't have faith in them," said Machsomi, who's now 67. "They were throwing stones for no reason. They were killing people for no reason. They were killing innocent people for no reason."
On Assaell Street, the Machsomis' old house has been demolished to make way for a three-story apartment complex with views of the Jordan Valley. The Jewish Israeli owner hopes to sell the penthouse for more than $2 million. The Arab neighbors are angry; they have to fight for permission for any expansion or renovation.
One of them, Moussa Salhab, a security guard at a Palestinian school on the outskirts of Jerusalem, lives in the house his father bought in 1938. He recently lost a battle with the Israeli government over ownership of a grassy patch next to his home.
"The Israeli government has its eye on this street," said Salhab, who has a Jordanian passport because he was born in a Jerusalem that was under Jordanian control. "Everything here is precious."
There's little sense of family on Assaell Street these days. Most of the Jewish families on the west side of the street have built walls and fences around their homes. Some leave only via their back doors so they don't have to use Assaell Street at all.
Lori Rosenkranz, a 45-year-old divorced mother of two who lives across from the Bazlamits, is one of those.
"There are some very nice people who live on the street," she said. "The particular family that lives across the street are monsters."
Rosenkranz's patience with the Bazlamits had been tested over the years as their children climbed into her yard to pick fruit and retrieve errant soccer balls. It evaporated last year after the Bazlamits returned from a triumphant pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five duties required of all Muslims in their lives.
Traditionally, families here who complete the pilgrimage paint their walls with festive drawings that include Mecca's widely recognized rectangular, black Kabbah, the holiest site in Islam. The Bazlamits painted drawings not only on their outside wall but on Rosenkranz's as well. Rosenkranz called the city and demanded that the city remove it.
The next morning, she found all four tires on her car slashed. The Bazlamits claimed ignorance.
A few weeks ago, Rosenkranz's house was broken into. One of the thieves scribbled an obscene drawing on the wall above her bed. The Jerusalem real estate agent is convinced that her neighbors did it.
"I'm mad," she said. "I'm really upset that they have such little regard for me, for my property, for my family. I don't want to look at them. They look at me and say, `You little nothing. We won.'"
Not everyone has given up. David Epstein, 57, a social worker, and his wife, Alisa Maeir-Epstein, 51, a "life coach" and instructor in Reiki, an Asian healing technique, are teaching their young daughter Arabic to use when she plays in the street.
"I'm so glad most Israelis are, you know, racist," David Epstein said wryly.
"When they hear our neighborhood has Arabs, well, as a result we were able to get something nice, nearly our dream house."
When the Bazlamits made their triumphant return from Mecca, they invited David to take part in the celebrations. Alisa has gone to wedding celebrations and spent an afternoon learning to make a traditional Arab dish from another neighbor.
Still, Alisa can feel the distance that decades of physical and psychological division have created.
"I don't feel great good will on the street," she said.
Where she sees distance, however, her husband sees opportunity. The social worker in him can't help but see a chance to bring Arab and Jew together with block parties, garage sales and neighborhood events.
"It used to be no man's land; now it is both man's land," said David, who wants the city to bring in trained mediators to help create a climate for reconciliation. "There's some natural interaction, but it's like wildflowers growing, and it needs a degree of cultivation."