Following an 18-year legal battle, members of a settler organization have moved into the Petra Hotel in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Currently, Ateret Cohanim occupies only part of the Petra Hotel, but Christians in Jerusalem consider the hotel a strategic building that could affect the character of the Old City’s entire Christian Quarter.
Located near Jaffa Gate, the hotel is one of two large buildings the organization bought from the previous Greek Orthodox patriarch, Irenaios, in a controversial deal. The other is the nearby Imperial Hotel.
When the deal came to light in 2005, it sparked a major crisis within the local branch of the Greek Orthodox church that culminated in Irenaios’ unprecedented dismissal. His replacement, Theophilos III, then tried to repudiate the deal and get it overturned.
But the Jerusalem District Court, and later the Supreme Court, ratified it, despite concluding that there were “shadows and black holes in the moves that led to the agreement’s signing.” Among other things, it was proven that Ateret Cohanim had paid a church official.
The patriarchate then asked the district court for a retrial. Its request was based on an affidavit by Ted Bloomfield, who had worked for Ateret Cohanim in the 1990s and said the organization had regularly paid bribes to senior church officials. He also said it had offered sexual bribes and that an assessor’s valuation of the property had been concealed from the court.
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But in 2020, Judge Moshe Bar-Am ruled that the patriarchate submitted this affidavit too late. He said it could have submitted the document even before the original hearing in the Jerusalem District Court, as evidenced by the fact that Bloomfield’s claims had been reported by Haaretz two and half years earlier. He also said Bloomfield’s affidavit didn’t relate directly to the 2004 sale of the hotels, but to earlier deals that never went through.
The patriarchate has appealed this decision, too, and the Supreme Court is expected to hear the appeal in another few months.
Ever since its victory in the district court, however, Ateret Cohanim has been waging a separate legal battle against the Qiresh family, which runs the hotel under a lease from the patriarchate. And Sunday morning, Ateret Cohanim members entered the building’s first floor under police escort. Under the terms of the lease, this floor is separate from the rest of the hotel, which is why the organization was able to take possession.
Lawyers for the Qiresh family, Medhat Deeba and Maher Hanna, argued that the settlers were in fact trespassing, but said the police refused to even listen to them. They also said one of the settlers attacked Deeba with pepper spray and that police then detained Deeba and took him to the station for questioning.
Police said he isn’t suspected of anything and was only taken there to give a statement.