The Jewish settler movement competes for a large part of the Armenian quarter

India – Feb 9 2024

The Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem is facing its biggest crisis in recent times. A Jewish businessman linked to the radical settler movement is ready to develop a quarter of the neighborhood’s territory with plans to build a luxury hotel. If it goes ahead, it will significantly change part of Jerusalem’s Old City and accelerate the demographic shift toward the Jewish population of the city that has been happening for several years.

The Armenian Quarter actually makes up one-sixth of the Old City (the other quarters are Muslim, Christian and Jewish), and the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the 4th century. Together with the neighboring Christian quarter, it is the stronghold of the small Christian minority in the city. The threat of Jewish settlers taking over parts of the Quarter is widely understood as a change in the demographic status quo in favor of Israel’s interests.

In 2021, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, agreed with the developers on a 98-year lease for part of the Armenian Quarter. The agreement covers a significant area that today includes a parking lot, buildings belonging to the office of the Armenian church leader – known as the Patriarchate – and the homes of five Armenian families.

News of the deal sparked strong protests among Armenians in the neighborhood last year. Feelings ran so deep that in October the patriarch and other church leaders felt compelled to renege on the agreement. This led to violent clashes between settlers and local Armenians.

After a few weeks of calm, fighting broke out again in late December, when more than 30 men armed with stones and sticks allegedly attacked Armenians who had been guarding the area for several weeks.

The dispute has now gone to court. The question is whether the lease is valid or whether unilateral termination renders the contract null and void. The Patriarchate has engaged lawyers – local and from Armenia and the US – who will present their case that the contract was not properly concluded due to irregularities in the contract.

This is not a single incident. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, when all of Jerusalem came under Israeli control, there has been a concerted effort to change the demographics of traditionally Arab East Jerusalem.

In many places, the authorities are evicting Arab families who have lived there for decades on the grounds that they do not have the documents to own the house. Then a Jewish family immigrates.

This change in the demography of East Jerusalem occurs through emigration, demolition and construction restrictions. This is also happening in the famous and touristic Old City of Jerusalem.

Almost 20 years ago, there was a minor scandal when it emerged that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the owner of a large property, had entered into a long-term lease for two historic hotels with an organization of Jewish settlers.

Disputed territory: In most plans for a two-state solution, East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)CC BY-ND

Now we have a similar incident regarding the Armenian Patriarchate. Palestinians, who have long fought against illegal Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, view the sale or long-term lease of real estate to Jewish settlers extremely negatively.

East Jerusalem is vital to the Palestinians. Proposed plans for a two-state solution call for the capital of a future Palestinian state. A decisive change in the demography there is therefore a priority goal of some in Israel – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who does not want a two-state solution.

Read more: Explained: What is the solution to the two-state conflict between Israel and Palestine?

This conflict also highlights an old problem of the Jerusalem Christian churches – namely, the gulf between the leadership and the people. The old churches are hierarchical in nature and the leaders rule at the top. In Jerusalem, there is an additional problem in that church leaders are not always from the local population.

The largest Christian denomination in the Holy Land is the Greek Orthodox Church. Its members are mostly Arabs, while the patriarch and other leading prelates are Greeks.

Nourhan Manougian, the current and 97th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, was born in Syria to an Armenian family. The Armenian Patriarchate has been accused of corruption and illegitimate sale of assets in the past, long before the current crisis.

If the Armenians lose this battle and the settler movement is able to take control of such a key city, it will hurt a vulnerable small minority. The settler campaign to colonize East Jerusalem under Jewish control will achieve another victory.