A right-wing settler group in Israel has finally won a long legal battle over the ownership of Palestinian Christian property in occupied East Jerusalem. The settlers are said to have appropriated Palestinian land and property owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Known as Ateret Cohanim, the group's victory came in the Supreme Court, despite accusations that inappropriate funds were paid to complete the contested sale in 2004.
Ateret Cohanim "seeks to increase Jewish presence in the Old City" and had claimed that it had purchased three buildings, including the two hotels belonging to the Christian community. The sale sparked strong opposition within the church and led to the unprecedented removal of the Patriarch at the time, Irineos I.
In a legal challenge to the sale, a petition was launched by the church arguing that the sale of the property was based on bribery and the church figures who signed the deal were corrupt; they fled the country immediately after signing the deal. However, rejecting the Patriarchate's appeal, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled last year that the church had failed to provide sufficient evidence that the deal was made fraudulently.
Despite acknowledging that that there were "shadows and black holes in the process that led to the signing of the agreements," the Court ruled that the church had not met its burden of proving that the contract was invalid.
The Court also dismissed the church's claim that the buildings were sold for vastly less than they were worth and that individuals associated with the church received funds from Ateret Cohanim outside the formal transaction.
Yesterday's ruling leaves the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate with no legal grounds on which to prevent the transfer of the ownership of the property.