Israeli court dismisses church’s appeal to stop Old City property sales to settler group

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

In June Israel’s high court rejected an appeal to stop the sale of properties in Jerusalem that the Greek Orthodox church unknowingly signed over to an Israeli settler organization, Ateret Cohanim.

Originally sold in 2004, the properties in question are all in the Old City: a residential building in the Muslim Quarter, the Muzamiya House near the Islamic holy site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (itself constantly threatened by settler groups and the Israeli government), and two historic hotels by the Jaffa Gate, the New Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hostel. The buildings are located in East Jerusalem, territory Israeli occupied in 1967. Under international law, it is illegal for Israel to sell or transfer Palestinian land to its citizens. 

The sale went unnoticed until 2005 when the Israeli outlet Maariv reported the church sold the properties for a fraction of the market value. The purchaser was revealed to be three overseas shell companies that were majority owned by Ateret Cohanim. The head of the church at the time, Irenaios Skopelitis, was ousted amid outcry, although on his personal website he continues to claim that he is the rightful Patriarch of the Church. In a rare 2011 interview with the Associated Press via a smuggled audio device, Skopelitis claimed he was effectively being held prisoner on a church compound, barred from leaving or receiving visitors. He has since left his apartment only a handful of times, mostly for surgery, and maintains that he was not responsible for the embattled transaction.

Senior Church officials initially argued the sale was not valid, and refused to turn over the properties. After Ateret Cohanim filed a petition for the Church to relinquish the buildings, the Church appealed the sale in court, arguing that Skopelitis was bribed. Yet in the latest ruling the court said the Church had failed to prove a bribe had occurred. The Church has vowed to continue the battle, submitting a petition, but from the attitudes of multiple Israeli courts over more than a decade, it is clear it will be an uphill struggle.

For private entities, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate included, Palestinian law prohibits sales of land and structures to all non-Palestinians. However, there is little enforcement in East Jerusalem. The offense is punishable by death, although such a sentence requires approval from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has never sanctioned the penalty.

The sale is a sadly familiar story. Residents, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs alike, have faced eviction after the leases on their properties expired and were transferred from the Patriarchate to new owners. These owners have often operated from behind anonymous companies based in tax havens. One who can be named, according to a report in the Times of Israel, is David Sofer, an Israeli businessman living in London, whose companies Kronty Investments Ltd. and Oranim Ltd. (registered in the British tax haven in the Isle of Man) have purchased land in the Abu Tor neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is the second largest landowner in Israel after the government and the oldest and largest church landowner in Jerusalem. Past land sales to shell companies have been mired in secrecy and deception, with prime real estate owned by the Patriarchate in cities across Israel being sold off on the cheap. According to a Haaretz investigation, beginning in 2011 dozens of properties were sold at a fraction of their value to Israeli-owned companies registered offshore.

The Patriarchate receives no financial support from the Greek government. Its reasoning in selling off its property, its most valuable asset, is unknown. Yet last January Palestinians protested as the Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, accused by many of complicity in the sales to Israeli organizations, arrived in Bethlehem to attend Christmas ceremonies.

Palestinian Orthodox Christians have called for the sacking of Theophilos and said that all roles in the Patriarchate should be filled by Palestinians, so as to prevent such sales going ahead.

Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna has denounced the sales in strong terms.

“The seizure of the historic Jaffa Gate properties by extremist settler organizations is a new catastrophe to the misfortunes suffered by the Christians in this Holy City,” he said in a statement last month.

The Patriarchate has defended itself on the latest sales to Ateret Cohanim by stating that it was deceived and did not know Israeli settlers were the beneficiaries.

After losing an earlier legal challenge in 2017 to nullify the sale, AFP reported, the Patriarchate said the Jerusalem District Court had “disregarded the Patriarchate’s clear and concrete legal evidence proving bad faith, bribery and conspiracy.”

Ateret Cohanim has received funding from tax-exempt donations in the U.S., including personal donations from Trump’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman. The exact value of Friedman’s donations are not known, but were confirmed by the founder of American fundraising arm, Bernie Hoenig. Friedman, Hoenig told Haaretz in an interview, had attended “one, maybe two,” charity galas for the group in New York.

Ateret Cohanim has aggressively pursued its stated aim of the Judaization of Jerusalem. According to the settlement watchdog Peace Now, the group owns at least 59 properties in East Jerusalem, of which around half are in a single neighborhood, Silwan.

The organization has become infamous among Palestinians for its questionable tactics to purchase properties for Jewish settlers and use of intimidation and violence to expel Palestinian families from their homes. In an ongoing struggle, 700 Palestinians are fighting to keep their homes in the Batn al-Hawa area of the Silwan neighborhood just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, in the face of the attempt by Ateret Cohanim to expel them. Ateret Cohanim was given the deed to a building owned by Yemenite Jews before 1938 and Israeli laws allows Israelis, but not Palestinians, to reclaim property from before 1948. 

Embed from Getty Images

Ateret Cohanim’s underhanded acquisition of the two hotels inside Jaffa Gate is a textbook example of the methods by which settlers and, dating back to 1948, the Israeli state, have tried to airbrush Palestinian presence from the land. They are two of the most striking buildings on David Street, the iconic thoroughfare dividing the Old City’s Christian and Armenian Quarters, examples of the European-influenced architecture of 19th century Jerusalem, standing almost side by side. The façade of the New Imperial Hotel, built in 1885, is strongly marked by its decorative pilasters and balustrades, while the Petra Hostel (previously the famous Mediterranean Hotel, and before that the residence of the first Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem) blends European and Arab styles with its graceful arched windows and balconies.

The service they have offered has changed little since the nineteenth century, as thousands of Europeans and Westerners flocked to see the Holy Land. Jaffa Gate was the first port of call for travelers reaching Jerusalem after landing at the port of Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast; the Ottoman train station opened a short distance from Jaffa Gate in 1892. The hotels then, as now, offer the traveler the chance to stay a night in the magic of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Yet much else has changed in the area within, and outside, Jaffa Gate. Photographs from the late Ottoman period show that the area inside Jaffa Gate was Jerusalem’s melting pot, where its residents of different communities and religions could mingle as equals, with foreign visitors. Outside the gate were Arab cafes and market stalls, and horses could be hired for traveling southwards to Bethlehem and Hebron (Jaffa Gate’s name in Arabic, Bab al-Khalil, refers to the Arabic name for Hebron, al-Khalil).

Today, the area’s appearance is owed to decades of Israeli policies of Judaization and what can be termed settler gentrification focused on altering the character of what is one of the most important tourist sites in Palestine/Israel. An Israeli tourist office sits just inside the gate; bright Hebrew signs have obliterated the Arabic script; tourist stalls flutter with Israeli flags; the Ottoman-era barracks near the gate, the Kishle, is a museum presenting a view of the Jewish people’s ancient connection to Jerusalem. Ateret Cohanim’s acquisition of the New Imperial and the Petra complete the image of the Old City as a place with an exclusive Israeli and Jewish history and identity. Visitors to today’s Jaffa Gate are hard-pressed to find any sign of the ongoing occupation and oppression of the Palestinians who have always inhabited the area.

The same is true of the area outside Jaffa Gate. The cafes and markets have long gone, victim to the 1948 Nakba, when Jaffa Gate and the western part of Jerusalem’s wall formed the armistice line between Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem, and Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem, ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian residents. A stone’s throw from Jaffa Gate is the Mamilla shopping mall, built on a pre-1948 Palestinian neighborhood; most of the historic Mamilla cemetery, with graves dating back a millennia, has been destroyed to make Israel’s Independence Park, and – laughably – a museum of “tolerance.”

In fact, a colonial form of gentrification occurred under the British occupation of Palestine after 1917. Like the Israeli state and settler groups today, the British attempted to remove the physical traces from the Jaffa Gate area showing that the area had a recent history of control by another people. Among their first actions in Jerusalem were the demolition of a clock tower built by the Ottoman Empire in 1907, designed by the Jerusalemite architect Pascal Effendi Sarufim, with donations from Jerusalem’s residents.

Settler colonial gentrification was a widespread tactic used by Israel after the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. While hundreds of villages were destroyed to completely erase the Palestinian presence, others such as ‘Ain Hawd and al-Zib in northern Palestine were transformed into artist colonies, as were parts of Jaffa. Palestinian houses and even mosques were turned into trendy cafes or bars, such as the al-Ahmar Mosque in Safed which was turned into a bar by the Israeli municipality earlier this year, or museums glorifying the state which led to the dispossession of the Palestinian builders, owners and users of the buildings. The (mis)use of the architecturally exquisite Palestinian buildings, gives Israel a sense of history beyond its 71 short years of existence – but only when the presence of Palestinians in these spaces is denied.

The hotels inside Jaffa Gate, and the building in the Muslim Quarter, are the latest pieces of Palestinian heritage to have fallen into the hands of Israeli settlers. Once symbols of Jerusalem’s openness to the world, and the coexistence of the city’s diverse but cohesive communities, they have been co-opted by a vision of exclusivity and the dominance of one part of Jerusalem’s inhabitants over its other, indigenous, residents. But the struggle of the Palestinians of Jerusalem to remain in their city and live with dignity will continue.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

For the record: Regarding land ownership in West and East Jerusalem in 1947: The total land area of West Jerusalem (the New City) was 19,331 dunams (about 4,833 acres) of which 40 per cent was owned by Palestinian Muslims and Christians, 26.12 per cent by Jews and 13.86 per cent by others, including Christian communities. Government and municipal land made up 2.90 per cent and roads and railways 17.12 per cent. East Jerusalem (the Old… Read more »

According to Palestinian law, the selling of land and structures to non-Palestinians is an offense punishable by death. I understand that in an anti-Israel publication it is very, very rare that any criticism of the Palestinians be expressed. It would seem that the author of this article nevertheless felt uncomfortable that one could be executed for the “crime” of selling property, so we are told that “such a sentence requires approval from Palestinian President Mahmoud… Read more »