The battle to remain Palestinian in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter

The two historic hotels overlook Omar ibn al-Khattab Square in the heart of the Old City's Christian Quarter (Arwa Ibrahim - Al-Jazeera)

Arwa Ibrahim

Al-Jazeera  /  August 23, 2022

A legal battle over the ownership of historic properties belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church has turned political, as Israeli settlers try to evict Palestinian tenants.

Occupied East Jerusalem At the entrance of the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, two historic hotels that belong to the Greek Orthodox Church have been entangled in a years-long battle over ownership and identity.

During high seasons, the hotels, which overlook Omar ibn al-Khattab Square, bustle with tourists booked in for a holiday or a religious occasion in the holy city.

The two properties – the New Imperial, a 40-room hotel run by the Palestinian Muslim Dajani family since 1949, and the neighbouring Petra Hotel, a large complex held by the Kirrish family for decades – are a stone’s throw away from the iconic Jaffa Gate.

When the sun sets every night, a sense of calm drapes the quarter, drowning out the day’s noise and returning the buildings to a time of the ancient past.

But Israeli soldiers stationed at the entrance of the now empty Petra Hotel for the past five months hint at something disconcerting.

For nearly 20 years, the Greek Orthodox Church and the wider Palestinian populace have tried to challenge the radical Israeli settler group, Ateret Cohanim, from taking the properties through a covert sale agreed to in 2004.

The hotels, along with a historic residential complex in the Muslim Quarter, were sold as part of a $1.8m deal signed by a Greek official who has since disappeared and been named “corrupt” and a “traitor” by the church and Jerusalem’s wider Christian community.

While the battle over these properties has often been framed as a legal one, the church says the issue is political at heart, and involves the protection of the properties’ Palestinian and Christian identities.

“What these Israeli settlers have been planning for Jaffa Gate is part of a wider strategy to weaken the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem,” Archbishop Atallah Hanna, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera.

“Taking over the properties is a violation of Palestinian rights and of Christian holy sites,” said Hanna. “We’ve a responsibility to challenge attempts to erase Jerusalem’s Palestinian identity and history,” he added.

The issue is seen by Palestinians as part of a continuing effort by Israeli settler groups to take over their land and properties to establish new settlements.

Prominent cases of Israeli settlers trying to occupy Palestinian homes and forcibly evict Palestinians include the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem, Silwan, which lies on the outskirts of the Old City, and Hebron, in the southern occupied West Bank.

The battle to stay

Since the sale, the church has argued that the deal, which leased the properties to the settler group for 99 years, was done in bad faith and without the knowledge of the patriarchate’s board of trustees – a condition under the church’s laws with regards to its properties. It also says that the deal grossly undervalued the properties.

According to lawyers involved in the case, the Petra Hotel, which is valued at a minimum of $10m, was bought for $500,000 – the price of a single apartment outside of the Old City.

Due to the contention around the sale, the case was taken to the Supreme Court, which in 2019 ruled that the deal was kosher.

According to Asad Mezawi, a lawyer representing the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy, the court decided that while the deal raised many questions, the church was unable to provide enough evidence to prove the illegality of the sale and deem it void.

“But that’s because all of the evidence disappeared with the official and other church staff who went into hiding after they made the deal,” said Mezawi, pointing to what many Jerusalemites perceive as “treason” among those who agreed to the sale.

Despite this, a turn of events in 2019 brought a momentary glimmer of hope.

A broker who worked on behalf of Ateret Cohanim “switched sides”, said Mezawi, and provided “key recordings and evidence” that showed the Israeli organization had bribed and blackmailed members of the church into selling the properties since 1996. The recordings also proved that the properties were sold for much less than their market value, he added.

“The New Imperial was sold for $1.25m. And yet, Ateret Cohanim wants $3m in rent from the Dajani family for the past 15 years,” explained Mezawi, highlighting the discrepancy.

Taking the new evidence provided by the broker to court, the Greek Orthodox Church battled for two years to reopen the case. But, in June, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal, bringing the legal battle for the properties’ ownership to a close.

With that, the Church and its tenants have been fighting against the eviction of the properties’ Palestinian holders, and the ultimate transformation of the quarter’s identity from Palestinian and Christian to Israeli.

Despite their efforts, this transformation is already under way at the Petra Hotel. On March 26, a group of armed settlers entered a section of the complex, known as “Little Petra”, and have since taken residence there.

‘My soul’

Walid Dajani, whose protected tenancy at the New Imperial was agreed with the Greek patriarchy for three generations in the 1940s, has appealed to world leaders including the Pope, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the British government, and King Abdullah II of Jordan for support.

“I cannot express my attachment to this building,” said Dajani, as he pointed to an assortment of photos adorning his office walls.

They told the story of his family’s roots at the hotel and in Jerusalem, where they have owned vast lands for more than 700 years. The photos also boasted of visits to the hotel by famous guests, including Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898 and General Edmund Allenby in 1917.

Daniel Luria, the Australian-born executive director of Ateret Cohanim, has previously claimed that no one would be evicted from the two buildings, and that the plan was to restore them as boutique hotels, rather than as rabbinical seminaries.

“I smell antisemitism and racism trying to enforce Judenrein areas in united Jerusalem,” the Jerusalem Post quoted Luria as saying. “Jews are the indigenous people in Israel,” he added, and other claims are “unacceptable”.

In a statement on July 21, Ateret Cohanim said: “If a Jew is buying or leasing a property owned by the Church … he is NOT driving out the Church or its believers.

“The Jaffa Gate hotels in question ARE NOT HOLY CHRISTIAN SITES. They are not Churches. They are simply basic hotels in need of major investment and overhaul.

“They are now leased for a very long time to Jewish concerns, as ratified by the Israeli court system including the Israel Supreme Court.”

After the 2019 Supreme Court ruled in favour of the sale’s legality, Ateret Cohanim branded the Dajani and Kirrish families as “squatters” and has since threatened to move Israeli settlers into their properties as it did at Little Petra.

“Sometimes, I have nightmares that this day has come,” said Dajani, referring to the dreaded moment when he will be forced out. “If these properties are taken away, I don’t see a Christian in site here [Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter] in the next 40 years.”

According to Mezawi, the settler group has been using several tactics to try to evict Palestinian tenants, including raising rents to unaffordable prices; refusing to approve their requests for restorations, leaving the properties in a state of disarray; and attempting to disprove their protected tenancy status.

Their actions go against Israeli law, said Mezawi. “According to Israeli law, people who leased properties in Jerusalem before 1968 are considered protected tenants who cannot be evicted,” said the lawyer.

Hagit Ofran, from the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, which has campaigned against the Israeli takeover of the properties for years, said that while the sales were “suspicious” and undervalued, the most important issue is the political implications of the deal.

“Israeli authorities cannot let a handful of settlers determine the future of Jerusalem through corruption and bribes,” said Ofran, adding that the ultimate responsibility regarding the fate of these properties fell with the Israeli government.

“If they’re left to their plan, the Palestinians will be evicted, and the properties will be filled with hundreds of settlers,” explained Ofran. “A holy and touristic site will become an Israeli settlement.”

Arwa Ibrahim is a journalist focusing on the Middle East and North Africa