Israel's Supreme Court yesterday rejected an appeal against the sale of church land in the Old City of Jerusalem to right-wing settler organisation Ateret Cohanim.
Supreme Court Justice Alex Stein and Judges Yitzhak Amit and Yael Vilner yesterday ruled that the sale of the land – which took place in 2004 via international agents – was "legal". The court therefore passed the three sites to Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing settler organisation which buys houses and land for illegal Jewish settlement.
The ruling will come as a blow to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, which has been embroiled in the affair since the secret sales were made some 15 years ago. At the time the scandal rocked the church, with then-Greek Patriarch Irenaios denying knowledge of the sales; he subsequently backtracked on his position, accusing the church's director of finance, Nicholas Papadimas, of authorising the sales without the church's authorisation.
When the affair was made public in 2005, Patriarch Irenaios was forced from office by Greek Orthodox officials and replaced by the current Patriarch, Theophilos III. His successor has since waged a legal campaign to see the lands returned, arguing that the transactions were the result of corruption in the Patriarchate at that time and that a bribe was paid by Ateret Cohanim to employees of the Patriarchate to advance the sales.
Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling referred to three transactions: the first saw UK-based Berisford Investments Limited purchase a 99-year lease for the Petra Hotel, located just inside Jaffa Gate (Bab Al-Khalil) in Jerusalem's Old City, for $500,000.
In the second sale, US-based Richards Marketing Corporation bought the Imperial Hotel – also located just inside Jaffa Gate – and its ground-level stores on a similar lease for $1.25 million.
The third sale saw Gallow Global Limited acquire the rights to a Palestinian home called Beit Azmiya – located in the Bab Al-Huta neighbourhood of the Old City, north of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – for $55,000.
Yet despite the uproar the church – which is thought to be the second-biggest land owner in Israel-Palestine after the Israel Land Authority (ILA) and believed to own nearly 30 per cent of Jerusalem's Old City – has since continued such sales to pro-settlement organisations.
In 2017, Haaretz exposed three sales in which church land was sold at below-market prices to unknown companies "registered in tax havens".
Some 430 dunams (106 acres) of land were sold in Caesarea – north of Netanya on Israel's Mediterranean coast – for $1 million; six dunams (1.4 acres) at Clock Tower Square in Jaffa for $1.5 million; and an area of Jerusalem's Givat Oranim neighbourhood – near Baq'a – containing 240 apartments which was sold for $3.3 million.
This was on top of sales conducted in 2010, in which Virgin Islands-registered-company Koronetti purchased a three-story office building on Jerusalem's King David Street, another six-story building on nearby Hess Street, and a 2.3-dunam (0.5 acre) plot in Baq'a at below market value.
In an attempt to justify the sales, a church official known only as M. told Haaretz that the patriarchate "has no countries behind it, it has no sources of income. Its only sources of income are its properties". He continued: "When the patriarch [Theophilos III] assumed his position, the church was $40 million in debt […] we have properties that we are interested in from a strategic perspective and there are properties that we sell and from that we support ourselves."
The sales have sparked anger among Palestinians, particularly given the fact that many of these properties are eventually handed over to organisations such as Ateret Cohanim.
Ateret Cohanim has been at the forefront of attempts to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes, notably in the Jerusalem neighbourhoods Silwan – which lies just outside the Old City walls – and Sheikh Jarrah, encouraging illegal Israeli settlement in the Holy City.
In March, Jewish-Israeli settlers moved into the historical Al-Alami family home in the Old City's Muslim quarter. The home was sold by Issam Aqel, a Palestinian-American who the Palestinian Authority (PA) in January agreed to extradite to the US for selling land to Jewish-Israelis. Having obtained the rights to the property, Aqel sold the building to Ateret Cohanim, which subsequently moved the settler family in.
Selling or attempting to sell land to Jewish-Israelis is considered a crime by the Palestinian authorities and is punishable by hard labour, imprisonment or death. However, no death penalties have been signed off by PA President Mahmoud Abbas since 2006.