Israeli Land Sale by Orthodox Church Puts Tenants’ Homes in Danger

Some 1,500 families in Jerusalem will have to negotiate with developers, something they never expected

The Rosh Rehavia building in Jerusalem, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

A petition to the Jerusalem District Court reveals that the Greek Orthodox Church sold its rights to land in central Jerusalem to Israeli developers, meaning that in 30 years when the leases expire around 1,500 families living there will have to negotiate with the developers. 

These families own their homes under an arrangement whereby they own the apartment or building but not the land it sits on.

Up to now homeowners believed that since the Church owned the land and the Jewish National Fund had signed deals with it, the JNF or the state would ultimately intervene and find a way to extend the leases. The homeowners have already seen the value of their property fall 30 percent, and as the end of the leases approaches prices keep going down.

Jerusalem's upscale Rehavia neighborhood, in which property was leased by the church in the 20th century for long periods of time.
Emil Salman

The Greek Orthodox Church is the second-largest owner of land in the country, after the Israel Land Authority. Land acquisitions in the past gave it ownership over extensive lands in West Jerusalem, mainly in Talbieh, Rehavia, Nayot and the Valley of the Cross. In the 1950s the Church signed 99-year lease agreements with the JNF. These will expire in 30 years, with land and buildings reverting to the Church. 

Earlier talks between the JNF and the Church failed. In 2011, an investor group bought the lease rights for 200 years. The group assumed that the state would purchase these rights, possibly in exchange for construction rights on remaining empty spaces.

But this did not happen. In the meantime, another group consisting of the same investors, under a slightly different name, concluded a deal last August to buy all the rights to these lands. This is the first time the Church has done this in West Jerusalem.

The sale was disclosed in the financial daily Calcalist on Tuesday, following a petition by Patriarch Theophilos III asking the Jerusalem municipality to provide a document stating that there was no lien on these lands.

In principle the JNF can buy these rights from the group, but this would cost it many billions of shekels. The new deal gives much more power to the investors vis-à-vis the state, the JNF and the residents.

“There is now a clear owner, and homeowners can on an individual basis buy land or apartments,” says attorney Avraham Aberman from the Ephraim Abramson Law Offices, which is representing the investors. “The JNF has become irrelevant. We’re under a lot of pressure by people seeking to make a deal. So far we haven’t, but we’re constantly examining this.”

As architect Yehuda Greenfield, who is organizing a group of homeowners to address the issue, puts it, “This is a catastrophe for the city, breaking up its best neighborhoods. The investors want to get rid of these residents to terminate their leases. Their property value has been in decline for years.”

There are also concerns about a loss of green areas in Jerusalem’s center, with investors seeking to build there.