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 Jerusalem’s historic walled citadel, as happened surprisingly last November, when the war in Gaza monopolized attention. Dozens of people, some armed and with dogs, showed up at dawn to start lifting the ground, in compliance with an opaque real estate operation that has put a normally quiet neighborhood on a war footing, populated for 1,500 years by the oldest Armenian community. in the diaspora.
The activists stopped him and, in an unprecedented image in an area known above all for its cathedral and its potters, installed fences, barbed wire and Armenian flags in the center of the large car park that the patriarch and a monk rented for 98 years by an Australian entrepreneur -Israel wants to build a luxury hotel. In another place on the planet it would have been a simple sale, but in the old city of Jerusalem everyone looks at each other with suspicion because ultranationalist Jewish organizations have been acquiring properties through frontmen for years, in a hidden struggle to colonize it little by little. “It’s the biggest existential problem our community has experienced here. We are not stupid, nor were we born yesterday. Just connect the dots,” says Balian.
The situation has continued to worsen since last April, when the community became aware of the contents of the contract, signed in 2021. It concerns 11,500 square meters: a large outdoor car park (on the land called Giardino delle Mucche), some buildings that belong to the Patriarchate and five private homes. It constitutes 25% of the part of the neighborhood under Armenian control, as it also hosts a large police station or the Tower of David Museum, in Israeli hands. The price: two million dollars (1.85 million euros), well below such a coveted location. An apartment with a view in the Jewish quarter attached to the old city can cost up to six million shekels (1.5 million euros). The Armenian Quarter, which is losing population (now about 1,500), contains the only way to reach the Western Wall by car through the citadel, as well as the gate giving access to Mount Zion.
After finding out, a large part of the Armenian neighborhood rebelled against patriarch Nourhan Manougian. He barely left the convent and every Friday he had to listen to demonstrations in which they called him a “traitor” and held up a cloth to mark a “red line”. It was the culmination of the gap that was creating between young people and the Patriarchate, which manages the civil and religious affairs of the Armenian community. Manougian, 75, one of the deal’s signatories, blamed and expelled Baret Yeretsian, the cleric who coordinated the deal and who had to be protected by Israeli police from an angry mob before fleeing to California.
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“The community’s reaction had moral reasons, but also practical ones. Here we cannot add a single room, while in the Jewish quarter five-storey buildings are being built. Parking is a big problem and there are people who come from Bethlehem to school», explains George Hintlian, historian of the Armenian presence in Jerusalem, one of its main figures and former number two of the Patriarchate, at the community center. “There was also an element of surprise and anger in discovering the amount of land in the contract. At the beginning the Patriarchate was not clear about this,” he adds.
Like everything in the Holy Land, the issue soon acquired a political dimension. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmud Abbas and Jordan withdrew recognition of Manougian as patriarch, barring him from transacting or signing contracts in either territory.
At the end of October, the patriarch announced to the other party, the company Xana Gardens, the termination of the contract, claiming that this had been achieved through lies. The legality of the revocation is now in court, but the decision has changed the situation: the young activists grit their teeth and accept the patriarch in the protests, while the promoters lost patience and called in bulldozers, which demolished a low wall and raised part of the floor. “They thought that since all the media was busy with Gaza, they could behave like this thugs and physically take control of the place,” says Balian, who wears a patch on his sweatshirt with the flag of Artsakh, the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno Karabakh in 1991 and formally dissolved on January 1, after the Azerbaijani military victory and the virtual escape of the entire Armenian population.
In an unusual display of unity and how the controversy transcends real ground, the leaders of all the Churches of the Holy Land issued a joint statement in which they showed their “serious concern” about the events and the risk that they “ weaken and endanger the Christian presence” in the territory.
On January 23, the tension rose a few more degrees. At least a dozen men (several masked or covered in hoodies and sunglasses) showed up at the scene and one began cutting the fence with an electric saw. A shootout broke out, resulting in several arrests.
In the same parking lot, the signatory appeared as a buyer: Canadian-Israeli Danny Rothman, who sometimes uses the surname Rubinstein and other times uses both. He founded the company
Rothman sold half his shares to George Warwar, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship recently arrested for assaulting an Armenian activist in front of police. Warwar – who did not make any statement to this newspaper, hoping that “the situation will calm down soon” – was recently photographed in a hotel in the city while meeting, among others, Matti Dan, founder of Ateret Cohanim, the extremist movement that supports the Judaization of all Jerusalem. In 2005 the group bought three buildings in the Christian quarter of the old city from the Orthodox Patriarchate, well below the market price and through a shell company in a tax haven. The then patriarch, Irenaeus I, was deposed shortly thereafter after being accused of corruption. Israel’s Supreme Court ended nearly two decades of legal battle in 2022 by upholding the validity of the controversial purchase.
Ateret Cohanim denies being involved in the operation in the Armenian Quarter. However, Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and activist specializing in the city’s geopolitics and founder of the NGO Land Jerusalem, has no doubt that “the initiative is supported by extremist settler organizations in East Jerusalem.” He frames it in the policies of recent years aimed at “surrounding the old city with Jewish settlements” to change its character, “marginalizing the rest” of identities. “I can’t confirm it, but if we base it on recent history and some circumstantial evidence, some settlers are acting in collusion with the Israeli government,” he says by phone.
In the background there are also unfinished business. The Armenians, accused by some Palestinians of appeasement with the Israeli authorities, do not forget the idle weapons – especially drones – and the technological support that Israel provided 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 previous weeks, numerous Azeri military flights had been recorded between Israel and a base near Nagorno Karabakh. “Instead of helping Azerbaijan, Israel participated almost directly. And Artsakh is a very painful topic for us,” says Hintlian.
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