Israeli right-wing extremists intimidate Armenian protesters in Jerusalem

The Observers

Dec 2 2023

Israeli right-wing extremists have been harassing members of Jerusalem’s Armenian community protesting the razing of an important historic site. An Australian businessman purchased the area, called Cows' Garden, back in 2021 to build a hotel there but there has been fierce opposition from the Armenian community. In recent weeks, the businessman has also participated in intimidating protesters.

A car park in Jerusalem has become the centre of a heated debate over the past few months. The car park is part of a historic area known as the Cows' Garden. Located in the city’s Armenian quarter, this site has cultural and historic significance to that community and includes a wall built during the Ottoman Empire.

However, back in 2021, Jerusalem’s Armenian Patriarchate – the religious authorities in the Armenian community – decided to sell the parking lot and several nearby buildings. They signed a 99-year lease with Australian businessman Danny Rubinstein (known as Danny "Rothman"), who owns the company Xana Garden.

He wants to demolish the site and build a luxury hotel. However, when news broke about the sale in October 2021, there was immediate outcry from Jerusalem’s Armenian community.

The Armenian Patriarchate granted a 99-year lease agreement to a private company called Xana Capital, according to a statement from SaveTheArQ, an Armenian collective that contests the legality of the sale. 

On October 26, 2023, the Armenian Patriarchate published a statement saying that they now considered the sale illegal, apparently backing out of the agreement they themselves signed and leaving the site in a state of legal flux.

Ever since the Patriarchate announced that they no longer considered the sale valid, there has been uncertainty about who actually owns the land. Our team contacted Jerusalem’s city government, but they said that they didn’t want to comment on the land and that it was a “private affair.”

We also reached out to the Patriarchate as well as Danny Rubinstein but neither of them wanted to speak about the contract either.

On November 6, Israeli settlers threatened protesters from the Armenian community opposed to construction on the historic site. Observers

However, the confusion around the site was immediately apparent. Just a few days after the Patriarchate’s announcement that they no longer viewed the sale as legal, demolition crews arrived on the site and began tearing up the parking lot, according to Setrag Balian, a member of SaveTheArQ.

There is talk about construction, but what we’ve actually seen are attempts at intimidation. They came with machines and armed settlers. We made a human chain and peacefully stopped the bulldozers. I was personally threatened by the director of the company [Rubinstein]. Since April, the settlers have banned a number of members of our community from parking in the lot. 

Bulldozers were brought in to demolish some of the lot.

Things became even more tense on November 6 when Rubinstein himself showed up alongside settlers armed with assault rifles. Skirmishes broke out between Armenian protesters and the armed men.

Arrival of Israeli settlers who faced off with Armenian protesters.

Many said that these armed men are radical activists from the Israeli far-right. Thanks to the online facial recognition software PimEyes, it’s possible to identify Saadia Hershkop, an American citizen known to have links to settler movements in the West Bank. On Instagram, Hershkop promotes organised trips to colonies in Hebron in the West Bank and poses for photos with weapons.

According to the Qatari newspaper The New Arab, Saada Hershkop is known to have links to a man named Eden Natan-Zada. On August 4, 2005, Natan-Zada killed four Israeli citizens as a sign of protest against the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israeli law enforcement reportedly put out a warrant for Hershkop's arrest in connection with the crime.

It’s not just the conflict around the Cows' Garden. Some members of the Armenian community are reporting a rise in insecurity all round. Liana Margaryan, a member of the Armenian community who lives in Jerusalem, said the community began to feel intimidation after the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020. During the war, Azerbaijan reinforced its ties with Israel:

These attacks are carried out by Jewish extremists […] Most often, these are psychological attacks and threats. However, it has all become more intense since the conflict in the Cows' Garden […] they even attacked an Armenian restaurant.

Setrag Balian says that the Israeli government holds some responsibility for the rise in the violence towards Jerusalem’s Armenian community.

Since 2022, when Binyamin Netanyahu’s government took office, including ministers from the far right, there has been an increase in attacks against Christians. This includes everything from spitting to harassment to assault. Since the current government took office, extremists have the feeling they can act in complete impunity. 

The people who live in the Jewish quarter have been our neighbours for the past 40 years and we haven’t had any problems with them. 

Of course, it’s common that people who don’t like to see churches or crosses spit at us or shout insults… but it was nothing big, we felt like those were isolated incidents. But recently, we’ve felt directly targeted. 

Despite the intimidations, members of the Armenian community say that they will continue to fight against the construction of the hotel with sit-ins and protests.