Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Jerusalem Armenians in Bitter Fight to Save Their Land amid Focus on Gaza War

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By Thomas Helm

JERUSALEM (The National) — Jerusalem’s Old City, which has been deserted since the Gaza War, just had its most significant explosion of anger since the recent conflict erupted.

The Old City is no stranger to tension. It is arguably the main cauldron of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

What made Sunday’s eruption different was where it took place: a normally quiet car park in the Armenian Quarter, tucked away in the south-east corner of the Old City.

On the face of it, an increasingly heated quarrel in this corner of Jerusalem is about property development. But it cuts to the heart of the agony so many communities in Israel and Palestine have experienced in more than 100 years of conflict.

The current war, the Armenians say, has focused global attention on the unbearable violence in Israel on October 7 during Hamas’ surprise attack, and the subsequent massive Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

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That crisis, in turn, has empowered radical Israeli settlers to seize more Palestinian land and intimidate communities

Armed men with guard dogs descended on part of the car park right next to a private garden over which an Armenian flag stands tall.

Hagop Djernazian, a community leader, stood in the fray surrounded by Israeli police, lawyers, clergy and large crowds of agitated residents.

“I was at home. At three o’clock I got a message that a group or armed settlers had arrived,” he said, amid the furor.

“They have pepper spray. They kicked us out of the property. When the police came we went back in. The priests arrived as did our lawyer.”

Tensions had already been high before the arrival of the armed men. The car park in which they were prowling is the center of a bitter and murky property battle, involving a private developer’s plan to build a hotel on the site, which makes up 25 per cent of the entire quarter.

The land was sold by the Armenian Patriarch with the involvement of a now-defrocked priest who was responsible for the Patriarchate’s vast property portfolio.

“The whole thing stinks,” Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli anti-settlement activist and lawyer, told The National.

“This patch of land is strategically located. In Camp David, [Prime Minister Ehud Barak] was willing to give Palestinians the Christian and Muslim Quarter, but only half of the Armenian Quarter. Israel wanted its road, one of the only vehicular routes in the Old City,” Seidemann added.

“I’ve said to my friends in the international community, ignore the legalities for now. There are hundreds of members of a community confronting armed people with dogs and weapons. It’s on the brink of an explosion. The last thing we need is an eruption of convulsive violence in Jerusalem. Sort out the legal issues later – make this go away.”

The Armenian community is indeed seething. They fear the deal might spell the end of their presence in the Old City.

Without a car park, the Quarter’s already dwindling numbers would not be able to keep its institutions going, turning the area from a center of Armenian life into a museum, they say.

Garo Ghazarian, a high-profile US-Armenian attorney and part of a group of international lawyers who have banded together to prevent the deal, summed up the stakes at the end of a fact-finding mission in June:

“The Armenian Quarter is of national and international importance for all Armenian people all over the world,” he told a packed courtyard of residents and international journalists, flanked by peers from across the Armenian diaspora.

“It is of the highest historical value and wealth to the Armenian nation. It is an integral part in the identity of the Armenian people in general. It is living proof of the centuries-old history of our people. It is testament to our great civilization in world history.”

On October 26, the Patriarch announced that he had a sent a cancellation letter to the developers, although no one from the community has seen it.

That same day, bulldozers turned up to the site and began knocking down walls, prompting members of the community to keep watch on regular intervals.

Although they were already on alert, Sunday was different. The arrival of anonymous armed men was a significant escalation.

Djernazian beckoned in rage in the direction of one particular man, Danny Rothman, a figure at the heart of the property deal about whom very little is known.

Mr Rothman declined to comment on the reason behind his surprise arrival and the current status of the wider property deal.

Perhaps worst of all, many in the community feel betrayed by their religious leadership. Many believe the Patriarch was incompetent at best for signing away the property. Others believe corruption is the reason.

The breakdown in trust is dangerous for the tiny community.

Armenians in the Holy Land, numbering only a few thousand people, are mostly the descendants of victims of the Armenian Genocide, who scattered themselves throughout the Middle East to escape the Ottoman Empire’s oppression in the early 20th century.

There is also a much older religious community, whose presence for centuries makes the Armenians one of the foremost Christian denominations in Jerusalem.

Now, those two parts of the community, co-religionists in one of Israel’s worst crises, are bitterly divided.

There are, however, signs things might be improving.

Many priests joined the community in the car park on Sunday, not easy given their boss started the saga. A new bishop has just arrived from Armenia to deal with the institution’s property. A number of figures in the community told The National they hold him in high regard.

The Patriarch himself even turned up, according to a press release. “The community stood strong, with 200 members in unity to prevent the takeover and save the Armenian Quarter,” it read.

On Monday, quiet had returned to the car park. Mr Djernazian stood by the rubble kicked up by the bulldozers mere days previously.

“Jerusalem has been targeted for years, but it’s important to note that people are using the war in Gaza to target Armenians when they are most likely to be alone,” he said.

“We have had a presence here since the 4th century, so we will never give up. Losing this land would mean endangering not just the Armenian presence in Jerusalem but the Christian one, too.”

 

 

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