Sergei courtyard evacuation - Emil Salman
Workers removing office equipment and documents from a building in the Sergei courtyard in downtown Jerusalem, March 21, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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By this evening, the Sergei courtyard in the heart of Jerusalem is to be transferred to the Russian government. The complex, which was built at the end of the 19th century by Prince Sergei, the czar's son, was initially constructed to accommodate Russian pilgrims in the city and was later nationalized by the British Mandate authorities. It was subsequently taken over by the government of Israel.

By yesterday, the last of the clerks from the Agriculture Ministry, which had offices at Sergei courtyard, had left and Russian diplomats had already arrived to inspect the premises.

The courtyard and the buildings surrounding it are known as one of the most beautiful historic and architectural sites in Jerusalem. For decades, the location housed offices of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, in addition to the Agriculture Ministry and other entities. Over the past decade, however, the Russian government, which reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has pressured Israel to return control of the complex to Russia.

During a visit to Russia in 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Israel's agreement to return the facility. The move came despite a High Court petition that sought to block the transfer, along with concern expressed by Jerusalem's mayor.

Over the past several years, the Russians have taken partial possession of the complex. As of today, the only remaining Israeli occupants will be the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which unlike the parks authority is a private organization that has not been asked to vacate. The Agriculture Ministry said it would temporarily accommodate its staff from the Sergei courtyard at Beit Dagan (near Tel Aviv ) until after the Passover holiday, when they would move to a new location in Jerusalem.

The formal transfer of the site was to have been part of a planned visit to Israel by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about two months ago, but that visit was canceled due to a Foreign Ministry employee strike at the time. Since then, the Russian embassy in Israel has made it clear that Moscow still expected the hand over to be carried out.

While it's so far unknown how the Russians will use the facility, speculations include the creation of a cultural center or offices for Russian espionage service staff.

In related news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be leaving for Moscow tomorrow, where he will meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

Foreign Ministry sources said the decision to carry out the transfer of the Sergei courtyard before the visit had been made to avoid any controversy over the issue. The ministry also noted that the SPNI offices will remain on the site and the public will continue to have access to it.

Netanyahu's talks in the Russian capital are likely to focus on the latest turmoil in the Arab world. The prime minister is expected to urge Putin and Medvedev to avoid selling advanced weaponry to Syria and support continued sanctions on Iran aimed at reining in its nuclear program.