Israeli Settler Group Buys Property in Heart of East Jerusalem

Ateret Cohanim says it purchased part of a 'large and strategic building’ in heart of Arab commercial district.

Ilene Prusher

Ateret Cohanim, a religious Zionist organization that buys properties in the Old City and elsewhere in East Jerusalem in order to settle Jews there, says it has bought a “significant portion” of a building at the heart of the commercial district in East Jerusalem.

In an email to supporters, Executive Director of Ateret Cohanim-Israel Daniel Luria said the group had purchased more than 1,000 square meters in “a very large and strategic building” situated across from the Old City (in the area between Damascus Gate and Herod’s Gate).

Photographs attached to the email show the structure, which is located at the end of Salah al-Din Street. Built under Jordanian rule, it is home to East Jerusalem’s only full-service post office as well an Israeli police station. One picture showed the renovations being carried out on the interior of the building. Luria wrote that it would be used as an education center, with housing for pre-army yeshiva students.

The email, sent on March 11 with the header “Great news from Ateret Cohanim,” announced a “very recent acquisition ... as yet unknown in general public or by local Arabs.” It described the property as having been bought “by a generous donor” and requested recipients of the email to keep the news to themselves until the building is ready for occupancy – sometime around Passover, which begins April 14. The email was timed to coincide with Purim, traditionally a time for generosity. It urged supporters to donate toward building the dormitory, beit midrash (study hall), kitchen, small apartment for the yeshiva head and “security room furnishings.”

“This is a call for Am Yisrael [the people of Israel] who wish to see Jerusalem remain a united city and who agree that any Jew has a right to learn and live anywhere in Jerusalem – to partake in this new project,” the email reads. “This is a chance of a lifetime to make a difference and strengthen Jewish life in the heart of Jerusalem!”

The message also notes that this is “the first acquisition of its kind, in the area, which is in the heart of the commercial Arab district of Jerusalem – and in the general vicinity of Sultan Suleiman,” the road that runs alongside that part of the Old City. It noted that work is “being done quietly under the radar.”

From the outside, there are no signs of the work going on inside, though it is clear that the busy post office on the first floor and the police station do not account for all the space in the large landmark building.

An Israel Post legal document, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, indicates that the building is at least partly owned by the Israel Lands Administration, which leases it to the postal service.

Since its founding in 1978, Ateret Cohanim has sought to buy properties in East Jerusalem, primarily in the Old City's Muslim Quarter, in which to house its students as well as other followers in a campaign to create a “Jewish presence” throughout the city, including the parts Israel occupied in 1967. But neither Ateret Cohanim nor a competing organization, Elad, have managed to settle Jews in the exclusively Palestinian neighborhoods and commercial district close to Damascus Gate.

In a related development, last month the Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee approved the construction of a 12-story building in nearby Sheikh Jarrah for Ohr Somayach, an Israeli yeshiva geared to English speakers from abroad. As reported in Haaretz, the city put the plan for the yeshiva on the agenda despite objections from city council members and its own planning policy department.

The Palestinian-Authority-appointed governor of Jerusalem, Adnan al-Husseini, said he was deeply dismayed to hear of the plan to put an Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the heart of East Jerusalem’s commercial district.

“This is a main street in East Jerusalem, and I don’t see any logic in that. Our response is that this is something that is not fair. They should put a yeshiva in West Jerusalem, in a place where it serves the Jewish community,” Husseini told Haaretz. “Moreover, to try to settle Jews in these neighborhoods is just a waste of their time. East Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Palestine. We are all talking about a two-state solution, and it’s on the borders of 1967,” he added. “The Palestinians are insisting on that and it’s not going to change.”

Various nongovernmental organizations that track settlement activity in East Jerusalem said they were unaware of the acquisition. Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer and Jerusalem expert who runs the organization Terrestrial Jerusalem, says that yet another acquisition in a East Jerusalem neighborhood points to a trend that threatens peace talks. “We are witnessing an uptick in government-backed attempts to create settlement enclaves in existing Palestinian neighborhoods. These undermine the stability of Jerusalem, they threaten to Hebronize Jerusalem, and it is another obstacle on the path to any kind of permanent status agreement. It’s not surprising but it’s very distressing.”

Aviv Tatarsky, a field researcher for Ir Amim, said Ateret Cohanim has been trying, so far without success, to obtain building permits for a one-acre plot it purchased on a side street not far from the building on Salah al-Din Street.

“Many times these groups manage to get some small points and then it makes it easier for them to connect the dots, but in this case, they haven’t managed to advance it,” says Tatarsky of the nearby parcel of land.

“Settlement in a Palestinian area, and the security contingent that inevitably comes with it, does not bring anything good to the area,” Tatarsky said of the plans to use the newly acquired space as a yeshiva. “There’s no reason to have a yeshiva next to Herod’s Gate,” he said.