Land dispute in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter escalates as residents fear eviction

The Times of Israel
Dec 9 2023

Though the eyes of the world have been focused on the war in Gaza, Jerusalem has witnessed a real estate dispute over the past month that could have grave consequences for coexistence between the city’s religious groups.

A coveted plot of land inside the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City has become the focus of a legal controversy between the Armenian community and an Australian-Israeli developer who intends to build a luxury hotel complex on the property. In recent weeks, the dispute over the property has escalated.

The neighborhood is home to about 2,000 Armenian Christians, a tight-knit community whose presence dates back 1,600 years — the oldest Armenian diaspora in the world.

In April of this year, following a surprise visit by Israeli land surveyors, residents discovered that a land lease deal signed in 2021 by the head of the community, Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, had a much larger scope than initially announced.

It emerged that the 98-year lease included an area known as the Cows’ Garden, a plot of land used in ancient times to keep cattle and which now houses a seminary and cultural halls for the community, as well as the patriarch’s own garden and the homes of five Armenian families.

The deal, which entails over 11,500 square meters — about 25% of the overall surface of the Armenian Quarter — was concluded with Xana Capital, a hotel company owned by Israeli-Australian businessman Danny Rothman.

The patriarch denied knowing the exact terms of the lease, and claimed that a local priest, Baret Yeretsian, signed the contract on his behalf. The clergyman in question has in the meantime been defrocked and has reportedly sought refuge in Pasadena, near Los Angeles.

In an interview with the Associated Press in June, Yeretsian said that Rothman plans to develop a high-end resort in the Armenian Quarter, which would be managed by the One&Only hotel company based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020.

Yeretsian dismissed fears of an Israeli takeover of the Armenian Quarter as “propaganda” based solely on Rothman’s Jewish identity. “The intention was never to Judaize the place,” he said, claiming that Rothman has no political agenda. He insisted that the Armenian patriarch was fully engaged in the long-running negotiations and personally signed off on the contract.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Hagop Djernazian, an activist from the Armenian Quarter, said that the Armenian community was supposed to earn a yearly $300,000 rent from the deal, “which is laughable for this plot of land, located on the highest point in the Old City on Mount Zion, the biggest open space in the Old City. You can’t find open spaces like this in other quarters,” Djernazian explained.

The area abuts the Jewish Quarter and is a short walk away from the Western Wall.

Hagop Djernazian, an activist from the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, standing in front of an Armenian flag and a barricade built by local residents in an ongoing land dispute between the Armenian Patriarchy and an Australian-Israeli developer, November 24, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Jewish investors in Israel and abroad have long sought to buy properties in the Old City and East Jerusalem, in a bid to cement Israeli control over parts of the city claimed by Palestinians as their capital. For Jews, Jerusalem, its Old City and the Temple Mount it contains have been a centerpiece of national identity for 3,000 years and Israel sees the united city as its capital.

Scandals involving land sales to Jewish groups have previously embroiled the Greek Orthodox Church, the custodian of many Christian sites in the region. Two decades ago, the Greek Church sold two Palestinian-run hotels in the Old City to foreign companies acting as fronts for a Jewish group. The secretive deals led to the downfall of the Greek patriarch and prompted international uproar.

When the Armenian community learned that the terms of the deal diverged substantially from the preliminary information they had received, protests broke out. A first rally was organized on May 12.

Community leaders demanded that the contract be canceled, claiming that it violated the Constitution of the Patriarchate, which does not allow leasing lands for such lengths of time. The patriarch himself was apparently not aware that his own private garden was included in the lease.

The contract, however, was signed and is now legally in force, and while the community is readying to challenge its validity in court, the standoff on the ground has escalated.

On October 26, a bulldozer appeared at the large parking lot of the Cows’ Garden, Djernazian recounted, and tore down a wall separating the lot from the Armenian Seminary. It also destroyed sections of pavement, chunks of which are now piled up in a mound, with an Armenian flag planted on top.

On the same day, the Patriarchate sent a letter to Xana Capital requesting the cancellation of the land lease.

“This deal puts the integrity of the Armenian quarter in danger and therefore puts the Armenian presence and Christian presence in Jerusalem in danger, because losing this land will cut us off from the Christian quarter,” Djernazian explained.

On November 5, Rothman turned up, accompanied by his Arab Israeli business partner and a group of about 15 armed Israelis with two attack dogs seeking to “threaten and harm the community,” who had organized a protest sit-in.

“They work like the mafia, they sent a mob to confront us,” Djernazian said. The confrontation required the intervention of the police.

Danny Rothman did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the New Arab news website, among those who took part in the confrontation was an American-Israeli West Bank settler named Saadia Hershkop, a self-described “hilltop settlement activist.”

In 2005, Hershkop was deported to the US for 40 days for fear he would participate in acts of violence to disrupt the Gaza disengagement process.

He seems to still have run-ins with the law, and recently held a crowdfunding campaign to cover legal costs for what he describes as a “serious indictment issued against me in revenge for my activism.”

The confrontation prompted the Armenian community to set up a protest tent, manned day and night by residents, to guard against new incursions by outsiders. The community also set up a barricade with barbed wire to block access to the site.

On November 15, a group of people showed up and encroached upon the premises. The community claimed the intruders had been sent from Xana Capital. When the police arrived on the scene, most of the trespassers scattered. The community lamented that those who remained were not arrested, but that police detained three Armenians.

Djernazian accused police of cooperating with the company to assist it in taking possession of the land.

In response to a request for comment, the police said that “it is not a party to civil or contractual disputes… Upon receiving reports or complaints on suspicion of  a criminal offense, they are dealt with by the police accordingly, as is done in cases in which mutual complaints about assault and/or threats were received.”

The next day, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem released an urgent communique, saying that the community “is under possibly the greatest existential threat of its 16-century history,” which “fully extends to all the Christian communities of Jerusalem.”

In solidarity, the heads of the other Christian denominations in Jerusalem issued a joint statement two days later, saying that the recent escalation could “potentially endanger the Armenian presence in the area, weakening and endangering the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” and calling to handle the dispute solely through legal avenues.

Djernazian noted that the community has received the backing of other groups in the city in its effort to reassert control over its quarter, including from Jews. “Both Israelis and Palestinians have been supporting us, which is much needed because in the end, this plan will erase the Armenian presence in Jerusalem, and also the Christian presence. People will emigrate, we will lose our institutions,” he said.

“The real estate company is using the timing of the war [in Gaza] against us. They thought that no one would pay attention, neither journalists nor the international community. But it turns out that the opposite happened, and we received attention from local and international journalists and support from local diplomatic missions and the international community.

“Different institutions and officials have had their eyes on this property since 1967, but it’s next to our school, next to our church and convent,” Djernazian said. “We will not give it up.”

Agencies contributed to this report.