Jerusalem: Jewish settlers seize land owned by Greek Orthodox church

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  December 27, 2022

Israeli forces protect Jewish settlers during takeover and assault Palestinians defending the land in Silwan.

Jewish settlers and police seized a plot of land owned by the Greek Orthodox church in occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Residents and witnesses told local media that dozens of settlers stormed the five-dunum (5,000 sqm) piece of land in the Palestinian Silwan neighbourhood south of the Old City early in the morning. 

The settlers then fenced it off and installed surveillance cameras with the protection of the police.

Silwan residents rushed to the scene to stop the land confiscation but were assaulted by security forces. Three young Palestinians were arrested, according to local media.

“They beat everyone – men, women and children,” witness Mohammed Sumerian told Wadi Hilweh Information Center. 

“They arrived early in the morning while people were still asleep and they took the land.”

The land is owned by the Greek Orthodox Monastery in Silwan, which is part of the city’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, according to Wadi Hilweh Information Center, which monitors Israeli violations in the area. 

The Sumerian family have been farming and guarding the land for 70 years under a leasing agreement with the owner, the centre said.

Silwan, home to more than 60,000 Palestinians and strategically located south of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall, has been the target of Israeli settler expansion for years. 

Hundreds of families in Silwan are facing the threat of expulsion, either through lawsuits by powerful settler groups or through administrative eviction orders by the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality, which is seeking to build tourist parks themed around biblical stories and figures.

Israel’s control of East Jerusalem, occupied since 1967, violates several principles under international law, which stipulates that an occupying power has no sovereignty in the territory it occupies and cannot make any permanent changes there.

Greek Orthodox church criticism

Activists fear the land in Silwan owned by the Greek Orthodox church is particularly vulnerable to being seized by settlers.

The church has long been criticized by Palestinian groups for its dealings with settler groups and for allegations of bribery and fraud.  

In 1951, church-owned land in West Jerusalem was rented to the Jewish National Fund for a period of 99 years. Today, the land houses most Israeli state institutions, including Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

In March, Israeli police and settlers took control of parts of the historic Petra hotel, which has been the subject of a years-long legal challenge between the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and settler group Ateret Cohanim. 

Last year, the patriarch sparked outrage after revealing plans to sell around 11 hectares of church property to two Israeli companies seeking to connect a Bethlehem-area settlement to Jerusalem. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. 

At the time, the Orthodox Central Council in Palestine, a Palestinian Christian grassroots group, slammed the $39m deal as one that would “destroy the tourism-based economy of Bethlehem”.