The Supreme Court rejected yesterday the Greek Church’s appeal of the decision not to hold a retrial regarding the dubious purchase deal made by Ateret Cohanim settlers with officials in the Greek Church 20 years ago. The rejection of the appeal closes the door on the legal question of ownership of two huge properties at the entrance to the Christian Quarter near the Jaffa Gate: the New Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hotel. Both hotels are large buildings stand at the entrance to the Christian quarter at the Jaffa Gate and can house hundreds of settlers. Settlement in these buildings will change the character of the area beyond recognition.
Although the ownership is now determined, the settlers still need to win the eviction lawsuits they filed against the Palestinian protected tenants that manage the hotels. In both the Petra Hotel and the New Imperial Hotel there are Palestinian tenants that rented the properties from the Greek Patriarchy who cannot be evicted unless a court determines that they are no longer protected tenants. The eviction proceedings against the tenants are still pending and they are expected to last for many more months or years.
Peace Now: It is not a legal matter but a political matter. The ball is now in the hands of the government. A small group of settlers must not determine the fate of Jerusalem and the State of Israel and turn the Old City into a settlement. Even if the deal was completely Kosher the Israeli interest is to stop the Old City from becoming a settlement. The Israeli interest is to prevent the rift with the Christian world, the increased tension in Jerusalem and the harm to the prospects of peace. The government should expropriate the property from the settlers and leave it under Palestinian management. This is the legal, wise and just thing to do.
I. The political significance
The alleged purchase deal between the settlers and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy constituted an earthquake in the church that led to the removal and imprisonment of the patriarch, and not in vain. Both hotels are very large properties that can accommodate hundreds of settlers, they are in a strategic location, on the main street at the entrance from the Jaffa Gate to the Christian Quarter where thousands of tourists and residents pass daily. The establishment of such a large settlement in such a strategic place would change dramatically the character of the Christian Quarter and the public space in the Old City in general.
This is not only a violation of the Palestinian character of the Old City, but in this case, it is also a serious violation of the Christian space, the character and visibility of the Christian presence in Jerusalem. In recent years, the Israeli government has been leading moves that reduce and bite the Christian space in Jerusalem, mainly through tourism and archeological projects. These moves are leading to increasing tensions between the heads of the Christian churches and Israel.
The establishment of a settlement at the Jaffa Gate at the expense of Christian assets will constitute a severe slap in the face to the Christian world. The State of Israel, which is seeking sovereignty over Jerusalem, was supposed to prove that it deserved the precious deposit of a city so important to the three religions.
It is therefore of great importance that the government intervenes and prevents the settlement. Settlement in the heart of the Old City has far-reaching political and security implications. The settlers are taking advantage of the civil legal proceedings to establish facts on the ground, and the government has the option to prevent this.
Due to the enormous public importance of the properties the government has the authority to expropriate them from the settlers and compensate them accordingly. In 1999, the Attorney General issued a legal opinion regarding the settlement of the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras Al-Amud in East Jerusalem, and ruled that the government was allowed to expropriate the property from the settlers for political reasons:
“… The argument is therefore based on the political and security implications … as well as on the fact that it is in fact an attempt to dictate a political agenda under the guise of a legitimate construction activity of a property owner … The government seeks to prevent the creation of new points of friction, and to maintain political freedom of action at such a politically sensitive stage, and to prevent a single person … from shackling the government and dictating moves with far-reaching political implications … where the government’s position is that private activity can have serious consequences – both politically and in terms of public order – it must not be left helpless from acting.” (Emphasis added).
It is worth mentioning that since 1967, Israeli governments have expropriated about 24,000 dunams in East Jerusalem, the vast majority of them Palestinian owners, for the purpose of building Israeli neighborhoods. The government has all the moral and legal justification to expropriate about 4 dunams from settlers in order to maintain peace and security in Jerusalem.
For more on the government’s powers regarding settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods, see here.
II. The Dubious Purchase Deal
Settlers from Ateret Cohanim claim that in 2004 they purchased from the heads of the Greek Orthodox Church three properties in the Old City through foreign companies registered in tax havens: the New Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hotel near the Jaffa Gate, and Beit Moazamiya, a residential building in the Muslim Quarter in Bab Huta. The Greek Church denies the deal and claims, among other things, that the person who signed it did so without authority and after receiving a bribe from the settlers’ representatives, and that it is a deal that does not come close to the true value of historic properties. The Petra Hotel, which has dozens of rooms, was purchased for half a million dollars, and the New Imperial Hotel, which is a building with 40 rooms, entrances, halls, balconies, etc., for $ 1.25 million. Beit Moazamiya was purchased for $ 55,000. Just for comparison, the settlers themselves demanded more than $ 100,000 from the protected tenant in the house of Moazamiya as a “usage fee” (replacement for rent), and in the New Imperial Hotel $ 3 million, for 14 years.
The affair of the sale of the church assets and the manner in which the settlers’ representatives managed to get people in the church to sign the deals is a cross-continental affair that involved the use of methods bribery and temptations. In 2017, the district court approved the deal, and in June 2019, the Supreme Court upheld it, though it ruled that “shadows and black holes remained in the moves that led to the signing of the agreements.”
In August 2019, the Patriarchate filed a request for a retrial based on new evidence obtained from a man who worked for the Ateret Cohanim settlers in the 1990s that testified to regular bribes given to church officials by Ateret Cohanim, sexual bribery offers and concealment of appraiser opinions from the court. The district court denied the request in June 2020 and the patriarchy appealed to the Supreme Court. Last week (2/6/22) the Supreme Court held a hearing and yesterday (8/6/22) it issued the verdict rejecting the appeal and closed the door to the possibility of reopening the case.
The court ruled that although serious allegations have been made regarding the conduct of the parties involved in the transaction, they still do not meet the threshold necessary to order the revocation of a judgment and opening a retrial:
“Needless to say, we do not take any position on the substance of the matter. The allegations made regarding the conduct of patriarchal officials, as well as the conduct of those who negotiated with them, are extremely serious allegations. However, it cannot be ignored that those allegation were not properly proven in the original procedure, and now it is not possible to reopen the trial to the entire width of the front.”
The Protected Tenants
In all three properties allegedly purchased by the settlers, there are protected tenants. In the hotels, the protected tenants operate the hotels for many years, and in the Moazamiya house a Palestinian family resides for decades. The tenants rented the properties from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the status of protected tenants. According to the Tenant Protection Laws, these contracts remain in force even if the property owners change, and in order to evict them, a legal proceeding is required in which the plaintiffs must prove that the tenants do not meet the conditions of the Tenant Protection Law.
Two weeks after the approval of the transaction in the Supreme Court in June 2019, the settlers filed eviction claims and financial claims against the protected tenants (no. 49785-06-19, and 4633-06-19). These proceedings are still pending in the Magistrates’ Court and are expected to continue for months or years. But in the end, according to the law the protected tenancy comes to an end, they can pass to heirs only twice, so even if the settlers lose the eviction claims, the properties will eventually pass into their hands when the tenants pass away.
Little Petra Hotel
Adjacent to the Petra Hotel there is a small hotel with a few rooms known as “the Little Petra” which is entered through the entrance to the Petra Hotel. On 26/3/22 settlers entered Little Petra and since then they have been manning the place. The settlers purchased Little Petra in a separate transaction and they conducted separate proceedings, and after winning a lawsuit in the Magistrates’ Court, they hurried into the property even before the patriarchy had time to file an appeal.
The Patriarchate has filed an appeal which is still pending. The protected tenants in Little Petra even filed a demand for the eviction of the settlers until all the allegations are clarified, but the court rejected their demand and currently the settlers are allowed to continue living in the property.
The settlers entered the Little Petra compound without the usual execution procedures, and the police chose to assist them and not comply with the tenants’ demands to evacuate them until the legal inquiry. The issue provoked criticism in the international community, and while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised diplomats that the government would evacuate the settlers, police were stationed at the entrance to protect them at the compound. Currently, as mentioned, the settlers are still in the small property of Little Petra. More on Little Petra see here.