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In Jerusalem's Old City, not everyone is celebrating Hanukkah

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the walled Old City district of Jerusalem these days - the sounds of Hanukkah celebrations. This after the atrocities of the October 7 Hamas attack and despite the ongoing war in Gaza. Jerusalem is a disputed city, sacred to both Jews and Muslims. And as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, the holiday scene there is tense.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A Jewish family celebrates Hanukkah in front of their home, which is amid Palestinians in what's known as the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. Children spill out of the house. They light candles, sing traditional Hanukkah songs and dance in the street. Israeli soldiers who patrol nearby gather around to celebrate with them. Even before the October 7 Hamas attack, there was a security post on top of this house. Israelis have been moving into the Muslim Quarter over the years despite opposition from the neighbors. Israel captured the Old City from Jordan in 1967. Palestinians seek all of East Jerusalem for a capital, but Israel's government has helped Israelis to settle here. Just across the narrow, cobbled street, a Palestinian shopkeeper looks on. Raid Salah, speaking through an interpreter, says things have become even more difficult since October 7.

RAID SALAH: (Through interpreter) The occupation, generally, is just pressing us a lot. And there's discrimination because they get to celebrate their holidays, while I can't always go in and pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque.

BEARDSLEY: He's talking about one of Islam's most sacred sites just blocks away on these narrow stone streets. Muslims say access to the mosque has been severely restricted since October 7. Salah also says Israeli soldiers are checking IDs and preventing Palestinians who don't live here from entering the Old City.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BLARING)

BEARDSLEY: On this day last week, the streets of the Muslim Quarter are almost deserted. Arab shopkeepers have been told to close early ahead of a march by a far-right Jewish group through their neighborhood. Jewish students sing Hanukkah songs outside their religious school. Eighteen-year-old student Elon Taloub tells NPR through an interpreter that he may join the march.

ELON TALOUB: (Through interpreter) The march isn't supposed to be a provocation or anything like that. It's supposed to lift spirits and help people get to the Western Wall. Sometimes they go through the Jewish Quarter and sometimes they go through here. There's no difference in how much these two areas belong to us. This belongs to us, and that belongs to us.

BEARDSLEY: I ask Taloub if any part of this city belongs to Palestinians.

TALOUB: (Through interpreter) No.

BEARDSLEY: At the Western Wall, a site sacred to Jews, 57-year-old Israeli Evelyn Jacobs has come to pray.

EVELYN JACOBS: If you love something, you want it in its entirety. And the Jews are going to say that the Bible has gifted it to them, and so it belongs to them. And they love it with passion, and they're ready to live and die for it. So how could two religions share the same land they love?

BEARDSLEY: Not all Israeli Jews agree. I called Sahar Vardi. She's part of a group called Free Jerusalem and does not think Israel can continue to rule over millions of Palestinians. She says she still has hope.

SAHAR VARDI: Unless any of us actually believe that either all Palestinians or all Jews in this piece of land are going to disappear - and I don't think any of us believe that - then eventually we're either going to die or learn to live together.

BEARDSLEY: Vardi says the shock of October 7 could make people understand that there has to be a peaceful solution because, she says, a military solution does not work.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "MESA REDONDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.