Snaking through ancient streets in search of a future

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Riad fateh calls his journey to work "the snake route". He slogs across the West Bank hills, slips past two Israeli checkpoints and sneaks into Jerusalem.

Riad fateh calls his journey to work "the snake route". He slogs across the West Bank hills, slips past two Israeli checkpoints and sneaks into Jerusalem.

He makes this strange daily journey from his home in Hebron in the hope of earning enough money to feed his six young children. All day, he pounds the city streets, beneath the yoke of two large pink wooden boxes containing his wares - Palestinian-made ice lollies which are, painfully, called "Our Town".

The 30-mile trek is tiresome, not least because of the risk of being detained by the Israeli authorities. But the 30,000 Palestinians who live on his chosen patch - Silwan - have more spending power than their fellow West Bankers.

He sticks to Arab east Jerusalem, knowing that hardly anyone on the city's Jewish side would buy his lollies, even if he managed to escape arrest for long enough to sell them. On most days, he makes the equivalent of £13.

Silwan is an Arab neighbourhood, strewn untidily along a valley beneath the south-eastern walls of Jerusalem's Old City. It is believed to include the site of the city built 3,000 years ago by David, King of the Jews.

But although militant Jewish settlers have made several attempts to grab chunks of its land, the residents are overwhelmingly Arab Muslims, who have lived under Israeli rule since Silwan was seized during the 1967 war, and later annexed.

Now, as Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak enter their third week of negotiation at Camp David, theirs is one of the Arab neighbourhoods that may come under full Palestinian control, and possibly sovereignty.

It is not a prospect that fills Mr Fateh, 28, with any enthusiasm: "Business would be even harder, because people would have less money," he said, before asking if I knew any way he could emigrate to America. Ground down by his tough life, he cares far more for economic reality than for hackneyed ideology. Most of his Arab clients in Silwan have Israeli ID cards and belong to families which benefit directly or obliquely from being in Jerusalem. They earn more than most Palestinians under Mr Arafat's rule. So they can buy more lollies.

Silwan workers pay far more tax than those on the West Bank, but they also get better services - this, despite the obvious gap between the landscaped streets and pristine roads of Jewish Jerusalem's neighbourhoods, and the dereliction of their surroundings.

But it cuts both ways. Abed Saba, 47, earns more than Mr Fateh and lives better, and yet he looks forward to the day Israel leaves Silwan.

Mr Saba is a shopkeeper at Gihon Springs - a tourist site just beneath the Old City and the Mount of Olives - at the mouth of a 1,750ft underground tunnel created 2,700 years ago by the Jewish king Hezekiah to provide water to David's city.

The place ought to be a prime attraction, but he says business is poor because most of Jerusalem's tourists travel in Israeli coaches with Israeli guides who ensure that visits to Arab areas are brief. He is also ideologically committed to the cause of the Palestinian state. Getting Silwan would be a triumph, even if life got no better.

Many would agree with him. But not all. Khaled Radwan, 58, who lives not far away in another Arab neighbourhood, is a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. He has no love for the Israeli government but even less for the Palestinian Authority (PA). His sons work in Jewish Jerusalem. His grandchildren get welfare payments. But, for him, the issue is more basic: "I don't trust the PA. It is a mafia."