With speed and determination, the Armenian community of Jerusalem has organized itself to stand up to Israeli attempts to seize historic and vital Armenian communal property.
Jerusalem Story has published several stories about the standoff between Israel and Jerusalem’s Armenian community regarding control of Armenian church property. Since that reporting earlier in November, aggressive moves by Israeli entities have forced the Armenian community to respond quickly and collectively to defend their rights. At stake is not only the rights of the Armenian community but also the very presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem.
The Armenian property at the center of this drama is estimated to extend over 11,500 square meters, which makes up 25 percent of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.1 Since 2021, the hotel development company Xana Gardens Ltd. has claimed that through an agreement with the Armenian Patriarchate, it now has the right to develop it.
However, over the summer, a delegation of Armenian local and international lawyers2 was finally able to obtain the contract, and they discovered a number of serious irregularities.
On November 1, 2023, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem announced that on October 26, 2023, it informed Xana Gardens Ltd. of its decision to cancel the 2021 agreement it had signed with the company regarding the property.
The Patriarchate said that an extensive legal review post-signing found that the contract had been unlawful, falsely represented, and with undue influence, and that it disregards the Patriarchate’s legal position.3 Moreover, its legal team filed a case in Israel courts to cancel the agreement on October 31, 2023.
The land lease deal between the Armenian Patriarchate and the Jerusalem municipality, concluded in secrecy, is now in the courts.
At stake is not only the rights of the Armenian community but also the very presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem.
Spiralling Out of Control
On November 5, Xana Gardens majority shareholder Danny Rothman/Rubinstein, an Australian-Jewish investor, and his deputy, Israeli Palestinian citizen George Warwar, brought in about 15 settlers armed with assault rifles and trained attack dogs to provoke, harass, and intimidate the Armenian community—as well as to create facts on the ground.
At least one person present among the settlers, an investigation by The New Arab found, is a known extremist member of the Israeli settlement movement who identifies himself as a “hilltop settlement activist,” is associated with right-wing Israeli Minister of National Security, Itamar Gen-Gvir, and had previously been placed in administrative detention by Israel in 2005.4
About a week later, Armenians were shocked to see bulldozers in the area. Because the case has not yet been decided in the courts, the company has no legal standing to do anything in the area. Yet the Xana bulldozers proceeded to demolish parts of the Armenian Quarter’s parking lot area and threatened to cause more harm.
The team from Xana Capital Ltd. tried to stake its claim to a large area of the Armenian Quarter by force in the wake of the Patriarchate’s filing of intention to cancel a controversial land lease deal.
On Sunday, November 12, 2023, a Xana Gardens bulldozer attempted to demolish a stone wall by the Armenian parking lot. The Armenian community immediately organized themselves and set up a barricade to block access to the site.
At 7:00 a.m. the next day, two bulldozers showed up and attempted to tear down the barricade. They were confronted by community members who created a human fence, preventing the bulldozers from moving.
The community members were joined by the Patriarch, and again they erected a tent to maintain a physical presence on the site.
Despite the valiant efforts of Armenian community members, some of the area has been bulldozed, and more settlers with heavy arms showed up.
On Wednesday, November 15, things got especially tense when around 20 Israeli police forces showed up. Although the community argued that no legal decision had been made about the property and no permits had been secured for the demolition work, the police demanded the premises be vacated and threatened that they would detain and arrest the community members. They then did in fact detain three people—one of them a minor—for answering back to them, presumably to intimidate the group; the three were soon released. The two adults were ordered to stay away from the site for 15 days.5
Hagop Djernazian, an active member of the Armenian community and a spokesperson on this issue, has noted that the Israeli police has been cooperating with the company to remove the community members and take possession of the land. In a public statement dated November 17, he described the armed people who barged into the area as “mafia” that were hired to harm and provoke the community members and priests.
On November 16, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem released an urgent communique, saying “The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is under possibly the greatest existential threat of its 16-century history,” which “fully extends to all the Christian communities of Jerusalem.” The statement concluded, “We plead with the entirety of the Christian communities of Jerusalem to stand with the Armenian Patriarchate in these unprecedented times as this is another clear step taken toward the endangerment of the Christian presence in Jerusalem and the holy land.”6
On November 17, the Armenian National Committee issued a statement on the matter:
The Armenian National Committee–International, working in concert with the global network of Armenian National Committees, strongly supports the Armenian community of Jerusalem and the Armenian Patriarchate in protecting their millennia-old rights.The settlement of this matter must be made exclusively on the basis of local and international laws, without the threat or use of force.The rights of Armenians in Jerusalem are a matter of concern to all Armenians, hence a threat to the Armenians of Jerusalem represents a threat against all Armenians and will be dealt with accordingly.
“The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is under possibly the greatest existential threat of its 16-century history.”
Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem