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Jerusalem ‘land grab’: Armenian community fear eviction after contentious deal

<span>Armenian priests in Jerusalem celebrate their new year in January, on land sold off to developers. </span><span>Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum/The Guardian</span>
Armenian priests in Jerusalem celebrate their new year in January, on land sold off to developers. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum/The Guardian

Under the walls of old Jerusalem, black-robed priests and students lined up beside barricades, a ­bonfire and a mound of rubble just after midnight in mid-January to sing in their new year with dozens of other Armenians.

The community had marched out from the nearby St James Cathedral to say prayers in a car park, ­bracing themselves for a year of battles over the buckled tarmac where they stood, illuminated by the headlights of a circle of cars.

The plot of land, known as the Cows’ Garden, has been signed over on a 98-year lease to ­developers Xana Capital Ltd, headed by Australian Daniel Rothman (also known as Rubinstein) and Palestinian Christian George Warwar, for the construction of a luxury hotel.

Xana says the deal covers the ­dining hall of the Armenian ­seminary, the private garden and parking of the patriarch, head of the Armenian church, and the homes of five Armenian families.

Armenians say the deal is illegal, and will destroy the oldest Christian diaspora in Jerusalem, tearing out its spiritual heart and splintering a small community, which today numbers about 2,000 people.

So they are fighting it out on social media, in Israel’s courts, and – with non-violence – on the streets that have hosted Armenian believers since the 4th century.

The Armenians have been there so long, and in such large numbers, that they occupy one of the four uneven “quarters” of the Old City – the other three are dominated by Muslims, Jews, and a mix of all other Christian denominations.

“If this goes through, it will be the end of the Armenians here,” said Garo Nalbandian, an 81-year-old photographer whose house was signed away without his ­knowledge as part of the deal. “Armenians around the world feel betrayed.

“I’ve owned my house for 54 years, I would rather die than give it up,” he said inside a protest tent where a small crowd gathered after prayers to sing traditional songs and share tea and sweets. “Leave our quarter alone, leave our families to grow peacefully.”

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Last autumn, Xana sent bull­dozers, flanked by armed settlers, into the plot they say was signed over. The pile of ­rubble on which priests said new year prayers was created on one of these incursions.

Armenian activists have so far managed to hold them at bay. Young Armenians raced to the site to serve as human shields; they have since set up a permanent camp, with security guards and a tent offering warmth, food and tea.

The Cows’ Garden is the last large open space inside Jerusalem’s Old City, prime real estate in ­perhaps the most coveted half square mile on Earth.

The deal to lease it makes very ­little financial sense for Armenians. The contract covers about 25% of the Armenian quarter, but the initial payment of $2m (£1.6m) is barely the cost of a single apartment with an Old City view in nearby upmarket Jerusalem neighbourhoods. Yearly rent is just $300,000, reduced by any losses the hotel makes.

The Armenian copy of the ­contract doesn’t even include a map, says Hagop Djernazian, head of the Armenian Scouts Association and one of the young activists leading the campaign against the deal.

Signed in secret by the patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, in July 2021, it was leaked within months, ­causing shock waves far beyond the Armenian community. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority suspended their recognition of the patriarch as a result, saying it would change the status quo of the Old City.

“We have no illusions about what is going on. For us it is a land grab, whether it is under the name of Rothman or of building a hotel,” said Djernazian. “Any change in this plot will affect the ­status of Jerusalem, it will change the landscape.”

The patriarch has since said he was misled, and accused his real-estate adviser Father Baret Yeretsian of corruption. Yeretsian denies any wrongdoing, but fled to America in May 2023, requiring police ­protection to get through angry crowds gathered outside his home.

Many Armenians see echoes of the controversial sale by the Greek patriarchate of two large hotels in the Old City to Ateret Cohanim, which promotes and funds Jewish settlements in and around the Old City. The church challenged the deal, saying it involved bribery and ­conspiracy, but lost its case.

Haaretz newspaper published a photo of Rothman and Warwar at a Jerusalem hotel with Ateret Cohanim founder Mati Dan.

Dan denied any connection to the deal. Yeretsian, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, brushed off the ­comparison. “The Greeks made the ­contract with Ateret Cohanim,” he said. “We did it with a secular Jew.”

But Armenians pointed to ­settlers who turned up with bull­dozers, and say their community will be ­devastated by the loss of the land, whoever takes it.

“This is our heritage, we don’t look at it as property,” said George Hintlian, who for 25 years served as property secretary for the Armenian community and said he fended off multiple attempts to buy the Cows’ Garden in that period. “We got offers on all levels, but we were successful in protecting it.

“The settlers look at it as a ­precious acquisition, we look at it as something that will affect our ­community life. It is the biggest seminary for the diaspora. If we lose it, where will we train our priests?”

Last October, Manougian informed Xana that he was ­unilaterally cancelling the deal. Days later, the bulldozers arrived.

Many in the Armenian community think it is no coincidence that an issue that had been brewing for years erupted when world attention was focused on the Israel-Gaza war.

“The war gives a cover,” Hintlian said, warning that if the ­contract is allowed to stand, it will set a ­dangerous precedent. “This will open the door for future grabs, even using violence.”

Their dispute has been over­shadowed by the war, but ­perhaps also accelerated by it. With global media and political attention ­consumed by that conflict, there has been a rise in land grabs and attacks by violent settlers across occupied Palestinian territories, and a spike in ­demolitions across East Jerusalem.

There were an average 10 demolitions of housing units a month in the first nine months of 2023, but after the 7 October attacks by Hamas, the average monthly rate of demolitions increased to 17, Haaretz reported.

In January, the home of anti-­demolition campaigner Fakhri Abu Diab was targeted, prompting international condemnation including from the EU and the US. “These acts obstruct efforts to advance a durable and lasting peace and security that would benefit not just Palestinians, but Israelis,” said state department spokesman Matthew Miller.

On 18 February, Armenian ­activists launched a legal case based on documents dating back more than 400 years showing the land was held in trust for the community, so the patriarch did not have the authority to sign it away.

But Djernazian says social media has allowed them to publicise the fight to the Armenian diaspora, foreign diplomats and other churches, putting them in a stronger position than their former neighbours.

“I don’t know what our chances are but I do think we are in a ­better situation,” he said in the ­protest camp. “We have public opinion on our side. When the issue of the Greeks happened, you had to wait days for a media outlet to ­publish something.

“Now live video can spread round the world, we can bring the news to people’s phones in a minute.”