Fights, settlers, and a luxury hotel: An opaque land deal puts Jerusalem’s Armenians on the warpath

A 1,500-year-old community has risen up to defend its home in the Old City fearing that a land deal is a maneuver by Jewish ultranationalist organizations that is being covered up by the war in Gaza

Armenios de Jerusalén
Setrag Balian, an Armenian activist from Jerusalem, stands in the area included in the contract where the excavators entered last November.Álvaro García
Antonio Pita

Although he lives nearby, Setrag Balian spent the night in a tent. He and other young Armenian activists take turns so that someone can raise the alarm if the bulldozers return to their neighborhood in the historic walled citadel of Jerusalem. It had already happened by surprise last November, when the war in Gaza monopolized the world’s attention.

Dozens of people, some armed and some with dogs, showed up at dawn to begin raising the ground in compliance with an opaque real estate operation. The result is that the normally quiet neighborhood that has been populated for 1,500 years by the oldest Armenian community in the diaspora, is now on a war footing.

The activists stopped them and — in an unprecedented image in an area best known for its cathedral and its potters — erected fences, barbed wire and Armenian flags in the middle of the large parking lot that the patriarch and a priest agreed to lease for 98 years to an Australian-Israeli businessman to build a luxury hotel.

In any other place on the planet, it would have been a simple sale, but everyone looks at each other with suspicion in Jerusalem’s Old City because ultranationalist Jewish organizations have been acquiring properties for years through straw men, in a hidden struggle to colonize the territory little by little. “It is the biggest existential problem that our community has experienced here. We are not stupid, nor were we born yesterday. You only have to join the dots,” says Balian.

Tent set up by Armenian activists in their neighborhood in Jerusalem last November.Álvaro García

The situation has been escalating since last April, when the community learned about the content of the contract that was signed in 2021. It affects about 3 acres of land — a parking lot (on land known as the Cow’s Garden), some buildings that belong to the Patriarchate and five private houses. It is 25% of the part of the neighborhood under Armenian control, since it also houses a large police station and the Tower of David Museum, which are in Israeli hands.

The asking price was $2 million, well below such a coveted location. An apartment with a view in the Jewish Quarter annex of the Old City can cost up to six million shekels ($1.6 million). The Armenian quarter, which has seen its population decline over the years (about 1,500 today), lies along the only way to reach the Western Wall through the citadel by car, and also houses the gate that gives access to Mount Zion.

Upon finding out, a good part of the Armenian neighborhood rose up against Patriarch Nourhan Manougian. He barely left the convent and had to listen to demonstrations every Friday in which they called him a “traitor” and displayed a cloth to mark a “red line.”

It was the final expression of the gap that had grown between young people and the Patriarchate, which manages civil and religious affairs of the Armenian community. The 75-year-old Manougian, who was one of the signatories of the agreement, blamed and expelled Baret Yeretsian, the cleric who oversaw it and who had to be protected by Israeli police from an angry mob before escaping to California.

“The reasons for the community’s reaction were moral but also practical. We cannot add a single room here, while in the Jewish quarter they build five-story buildings. Parking is a huge problem and there are people who come to school from Bethlehem,” explains George Hintlian at the community center. The historian specializes in the Armenian presence in Jerusalem. He is also one of the community’s main figures and former number two of the Patriarchate. “There was also an element of surprise and anger at discovering the amount of land in the contract. At first the Patriarchate was not clear about that,” he adds.

Like everything in the Holy Land, the matter soon acquired a political dimension. The Kingdom of Jordan and the president of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmud Abbas withdrew recognition of Manougian as patriarch, preventing him from carrying out transactions or signing contracts in either territory.

At the end of October, the patriarch canceled the deal with the development company Xana Gardens, arguing that it was reached under false pretenses. The legality of the withdrawal is now in court, but the decision changed the situation. The young activists bit the bullet and accepted the patriarch in the protests, while the promoters lost patience and sent in the bulldozers. They demolished a small wall and dug up part of the asphalt.

“They thought that since all the media were busy with Gaza, they could behave like hooligans and physically take control of the place,” says Balian. On his sweatshirt he is wearing a patch depicting the flag of Artsakh. The self-proclaimed republic in Nagorno-Karabakh was formally dissolved on January 1 after the Azerbaijani military victory and the flight of practically the entire Armenian population.

Barbed wire fences erected by Armenian activists in the parking lot in their Jerusalem neighborhood last November.
Barbed wire fences erected by Armenian activists in the parking lot in their Jerusalem neighborhood last November.Álvaro García

In an unusual show of unity and that the controversy transcends real estate, the leaders of all the churches in the Holy Land issued a joint statement in which they showed their “serious concern” about the events and the risk that they “weaken and jeopardize danger the Christian presence” in the area.

On January 23, the tension rose a few more degrees. At least a dozen men (several masked or covered with hoods and sunglasses) showed up at the scene and one began cutting the fence with an electric saw. A stone fight broke out that ended with several arrests.

It was in the same parking lot where the contract’s co-signatory, the Australian-Israeli Danny Rothman — who sometimes uses the last name Rubinstein and other times uses both — appeared as the buyer. He founded the company Xana Capital in the United Arab Emirates and registered it in Israel in 2021. In a video from November, he can be heard to say scornfully to Bishop Koryun Baghdasaryan, “Go back to your Palestinian friends.”

Protest against the real estate development in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem in September 2023.
Protest against the real estate development in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem in September 2023.Antonio Pita

Rothman transferred half of the shares to George Warwar, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, who was recently arrested for assaulting an Armenian activist in front of the police. Warwar — who declined to make any statements to this newspaper, expressing his hope that “the situation will calm down soon” — was recently photographed in a hotel in the city meeting with Matti Dan, among others. Dan is the founder of the extremist movement Ateret Cohanim, which advocates the Judaization of all of Jerusalem.

In 2005, the group bought three buildings from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the Christian quarter of the Old City With funds channeled through a shell company in a tax haven, the group paid well below the buildings’ market price. The then patriarch Irenaios was accused of corruption and was deposed shortly afterwards. The Israeli Supreme Court put an end to almost two decades of legal battle in 2022 by confirming the validity of the controversial purchase.

Ateret Cohanim denies being involved in the operation in the Armenian neighborhood. However, Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and activist specializing in the city’s geopolitics and founder of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, has little doubt that “the initiative is supported by extreme settler organizations in East Jerusalem.”

Seidemann frames it in the policies of recent years aimed at “surrounding the Old City with Jewish settlements” to change its character, “marginalizing” the other identities. “I can’t corroborate it, but if we base it on recent history and some circumstantial evidence, some settlers are acting in collusion with the government of Israel,” he says by phone.

Behind the current situation, there is another score to settle. The Armenians, who have been accused by some Palestinians of appeasement with the Israeli authorities, have not forgotten the aid given through weapons — mainly drones — and technology that Israel provided to Azerbaijan. Israel provided strong support to Azerbaijan both in the 2020 clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh and in its final victory, last September, with a capitulation of the Armenian enclave in just 24 hours. In the weeks prior to the offensive, numerous Azerbaijani military flights were recorded between Israel and a base near Nagorno-Karabakh. “Rather than helping Azerbaijan, Israel participated almost directly. And Artsakh is a very painful topic for us,” says Hintlian.

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