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Atop a Jerusalem mountain, a cafe of rare coexistence in a divided city

Jerusalem – Aroma Espresso Bar, a trendy cafe, straddled between the Hebrew University campus and a sprawling hospital complex and perched 834 metres above sea level, is usually a hub of activity.

Hospital staff, professors, lecturers, and local and international students often mingle as they grab a quick snack or coffee.

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For 20 years, the cafe has offered a unique atmosphere in a deeply divided city, a haven where Palestinian and Israeli medical staff and students could coexist.

Rania Abu al-Hawa, a soft-spoken maths lecturer, says it is a place where everyone goes to “relax, regardless of where they are from”.

“We forget everything here; we can have no politics for an hour, then we head out and face the real world.”

That was until recent events.

After Hamas launched a surprise attack on southern Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people, Israel responded with a near-constant aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which has included the targeting of schools, hospitals and the enclave’s oldest church where Palestinians were seeking shelter. More than 4,100 Palestinians have been killed in the bombing.

At the Aroma counter, Palestinian staff prepare coffee for customers. Ahmad*, a mild-mannered Palestinian, takes an order in Arabic, before looking up and seamlessly switching to Hebrew as a towering Israeli soldier approaches the counter.

Ahmad says he has both Palestinian and Israeli friends at work. It’s normal to chit-chat every morning with each other – the cafe has been a bubble, he explains, where tensions would be put aside.

Now, Ahmad says he speaks less with the Israeli friends he had made at work. “It’s risky,” he says, choosing his words carefully.

There is only a trickle of customers using the cafe now compared with before. Chairs that are usually filled with students, who take pictures of fancy drinks and post them on social media, are propped up against the tables.

To be sure, many regulars at the cafe still view it as a rare space where Jerusalem’s mixed population can visit.

Danny, a 44-year-old Israeli working in real estate, strides out of a nearby building, a dark pair of sunglasses shielding him from the morning light. He says he has always enjoyed the cafe because he prefers “to stay out of politics”, and it is a place where “both Arabs and Jews like to go”.

He says that people are focused on their jobs in the area, and there are always good relations between Palestinians and Israelis in the hospital and university.

Ahmad says the cafe can only cater to everyone due to the “special dynamic” of the area. He adds that the menu is not kosher, which means that Israelis who visit are more secular and, therefore, more “open-minded” to mixing with non-Jews.

Despite most of the staff being Palestinian, the ownership of the cafe, which is part of a chain with more than 200 stores, is Israeli, and some of the profits, he says, go towards the army.

It has left some Palestinians conflicted about working at the cafe.

“Some people asked me why are you helping to give to the army?” Ahmad says, “But it is not just us; almost every business does now, just take McDonald’s, for example”.

McDonald’s Israel had recently announced on its social media accounts that it had handed out thousands of free meals to the Israeli military.

The Aroma Espresso Bar had previously attempted to open in a Palestinian neighbourhood, but Ahmad says it had to close after being attacked.

The recent tensions have affected the work environment; staff are eager not to discuss any of the recent events.

Many Palestinians who work for Israeli companies who spoke to Al Jazeera had been warned about expressing any pro-Palestinian sentiment. Rights groups and lawyers have noted dozens of instances where Palestinian employees have been suspended from work after allegedly expressing support for Hamas.

Mount Scopus, where the cafe sits, has a Hebrew and an Arabic name: The former translates to the “Mount of the Watchmen” and the latter to “Mount Lookout”. Both names are a nod to the spectacular view of the ancient city from the cafe.

In the distance, monolithic concrete walls cut off dense Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Wad Sub Laban, a shy student in her twenties, climbs up a steep pathway from Issawiya, a Palestinian neighbourhood on the rocky eastern slopes of the mountain.

She passes two large boulders that separate the area from the university car park; a couple of Israeli soldiers sit in a vehicle, eyeing everyone who comes and goes.

She likes to visit the cafe in between her classes and pick up a hot chocolate, but her view of the cafe as a haven, where both sides can coexist has been jaded, and she suggests it is more a matter of convenience.

She says that politics is not discussed only because “mostly Arabs work at the cafe, but most of the students who visit are Israelis” — so a power dynamic is at play where Palestinians know not to rock the boat.

*Names of some individuals have been changed to protect their identity

Source: Al Jazeera

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