Armenian car park in the Old City of Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s Armenians are determined to continue their fight.

In Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem’s historic Armenian quarter, the commencement of construction on a luxury hotel has triggered swift and passionate opposition from residents, raising concerns about the potential impact on their ancient yet dwindling community.

The source of the controversy lies in a real estate deal that allocates approximately 25 percent of the Old City’s Armenian quarter to an Australian-Israeli investor. The deal has incited anger and worry among the residents, who have mobilized to protect their community.

Residents, particularly the youth, took a stand against the construction, positioning themselves in front of the bulldozers to prevent the project from proceeding. One resident, Kegham Balian, emphasized the community’s commitment to a peaceful struggle, stating, “We are waging a peaceful struggle, and we are not afraid.”

As construction began, Armenians established a camp, complete with tents, stoves, mattresses, and even a TV, engaging in a weeks-long sit-in to safeguard the disputed land. However, tensions escalated when, on a Thursday, “over 30 armed provocateurs” reportedly attacked members of the Armenian community, including clergymen, according to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The patriarchate accused real estate developer Danny Rothman of orchestrating a “massive and coordinated physical attack,” shortly after the patriarchate initiated legal proceedings to annul the contentious land sale.

The Old City, divided into Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian quarters, was seized by Israel in 1967 and annexed, a move not recognized internationally. Land rights remain a contentious issue in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, with the expansion of settlements considered illegal under international law.

The Armenian community in the Old City has diminished over the years, with only around 2,000 Armenians remaining, most holding residency but not Israeli citizenship. The recent turmoil stems from a 2021 deal between the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and a Tel Aviv-based company, Xana Gardens Ltd, owned by Rothman. The agreement, which granted a 99-year lease on 11,500 square meters of land, including residences and a parking lot, was made without the knowledge or consent of the Armenian quarter residents.

Despite claims by the Armenian Patriarchate that it withdrew from negotiations upon discovering issues with the transaction, the community still feels betrayed. Father Baret Yeretzian, the priest responsible for real estate affairs, has been defrocked in connection with the controversial deal.

Efforts to prevent the land’s development have gained momentum, with the Save the ArQ movement receiving support from the Armenian diaspora communities, providing legal assistance and media coverage. The activists express concern about the fate of the Armenian community’s land, drawing parallels to a previous incident involving Israeli settler group Ateret Cohanim acquiring leasing rights to Greek Orthodox Church property in Jerusalem.

Despite the challenges, activists like Kegham Balian remain steadfast, acknowledging the political stakes in the divided holy city and asserting, “It will not be an easy battle, especially since we are not just fighting against a private company but also against settlers. But we are ready.”

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