Settler Group Strengthens Hold on Jerusalem's Christian Quarter After Victory in Court

The Supreme Court approved the disputed sale of three key assets belonging to the Greek Church to Ateret Cohanim, ending a 14-year legal battle

The Imperial and Petra hotels in Jerusalem, 2017.
Emil Salman

The Supreme Court has rejected the appeal of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and approved the sale of three “strategic” assets in Jerusalem’s Old City to the pro-settlement Ateret Cohanim association.

The rejection of the appeal on Monday ends a 14-year-long legal saga surrounding the sale of the assets, which has agitated the Greek Church in Jerusalem. The decision represents a significant victory for Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing organization that strives to acquire Palestinian property in the Old City, for Jewish settlement. With Monday’s decision, the group can dramatically strengthen its hold on the Old City’s Christian Quarter.

The story began in 2005, when the daily Maariv published a report about the sale of the three buildings, including the Petra and Imperial hotels overlooking the Jaffa Gate plaza at the entrance to the Old City. The Maariv story rattled the Greek Church and led to an exceptional procedure to oust the incumbent patriarch, Irenaeus. He claimed that the ousting was illegal, and insists to this day that he is the patriarch.

The new patriarch, Theophilus III, rejected the transaction and claimed that it involved corruption and bribery, and lacked church authorization. First, the patriarchate claimed that Irenaeus didn’t receive the approval of the Synod Council to carry out the transaction. It also claimed that their finance director, Nikolas Papadimos, had received money from Ateret Cohanim to advance the deal and had committed acts of theft and corruption involving patriarchate funds.

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The patriarchate also argued that the price paid for the buildings by Ateret Cohanim is significantly lower than their market value.

A year ago the District Court rejected these claims. Judge Gila Kanfi Steinitz approved the transaction, but criticized Ateret Cohanim for failing to bring the organization’s chairman, Matityahu Dan, to testify.

After the defeat in the District Court the patriarchate appealed to the Supreme Court. Last week the patriarchate’s lawyers repeated the allegations of bribery, corruption and lack of authorization. In today’s decision three justices, Yitzhak Amit, Yael Vilner and Alex Stein, rejected the appeal and approved the transfer of the buildings to Ateret Cohanim.

The justices confirmed the patriarchate’s claims that Papadimos had received $35,000 from Ateret Cohanim, and criticized Dan’s failure to testify. Justice Amit wrote: “When a litigant claims that Reuven promised a bribe to one of his workers, we could expect Reuven to come to testify and deny the allegation, even if the litigant has no real proof of the accusation …” On the other hand, Amit said the court could accept the explanation that there were other considerations for not having Dan testify.