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Cafe Disaster Brought Rare Show of Arab-Israeli Harmony

March 3, 1992

JERUSALEM (AP) _ For 24 hours, between one burst of violence and the next, a calamity forced Jews and Arabs to get along.

The mudslide that buried a coffee shop and killed 23 Arabs brought rescue workers together from both sides of divided Jerusalem. T

hey labored Saturday night and Sunday, finding to their astonishment that they can work together when they have to.

Sami Salem, an east Jerusalem Arab, put it to Israel TV in broken but moving sentences: ″In the beginning we don’t believe that the Israeli people do what they are doing for us. So we say to them, ’Thank you for everything you do for us.‴

The rare harmony may soon fade as soldiers in the occupied lands face the daily grind of the intefadeh, the Palestinian uprising. Indeed, army officers reported being pelted with stones minutes after recovering the last body from the rubble of the cafe.

Despite the permanent cloud of hostility, small kindnesses are commonplace, perhaps inevitable, in a city where Jews and Arabs live in daily contact.

They helped each other push cars in last month’s snowstorms, and stories are told of Arabs and Jews protecting each other in times of tension.

But it took the cafe collapse, the worst natural disaster in Jerusalem’s memory, to highlight this state of affairs. And on Monday, the harmony was still being celebrated on both sides of the divide.

″The tragedy dissolves barriers and draws hearts together,″ Mayor Teddy Kollck was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily Maariv.

″Israeli soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with intefadeh youths and dug with their hands through the rubble. A surrealistic spectacle,″ the newspaper added.

An-Nahar, an Arab Jerusalem daily, wrote: ″What happened in the coffee shop is the strongest proof that human relations are much more important and powerful than politics.″

The disaster was caused by the collapse of a supporting wall that dumped a Muslim burial ground on the crowded Paradise Garden cafe.

Minutes later, Israeli and Arab fire engines and ambulances arrived, and once the magnitude of the disaster became evident, the Israeli army’s national rescue team was summoned.

The unit, made up of civil defense reservists from all over Israel, managed to deploy within two hours, according to Amir Heshin, Arab affairs adviser to the Jewish-run municipality.

In the overwrought atmosphere, clashes could well have broken out. But both sides kept their tempers in check.

Rumors spread by Jewish extremists that they deliberately triggered the mudslide were ignored by the Arabs.

Kollek and national police chief Yaacov Terner were helped by Muslim clerics to comfort relatives and reassure anxious bystanders.

At one point a fracas erupted as Arabs tried to prevent victims being taken to an Israeli hospital. The Arabs feared the bodies would not be returned in time for quick burial in line with Muslim law.

Even that moment of friction was quickly brushed aside. Both sides knew this was no time for politics.

The Israeli media treated the tragedy as Israel’s own, with banner headlines and large photos.

Condolence messages from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President Chaim Herzog were prominently displayed in the Arab newspapers.

Hanna Siniora, editor of the Arab daily al-Fajr, doubted the moment would last. ″This doesn’t happen often enough to be of telling importance in the relations between the two people,″ he said.

″You can’t call this the dawn of a new era,″ said Heshin, the Arab affairs adviser.″But it will long be remembered as a bright spot in the history of the Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem.″

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