Abu-Walid Dajani, 75, at the Imperial Hotel near Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, on July 9, 2019. Emil Salman

'We Go Back 800 Years': Palestinian Fights Settler NGO's Takeover of Jerusalem Hotel

Ateret Cohanim set to evict residents after court approves its purchase of buildings in Old City's central plaza. 75-year-old Abu-Walid Dajani plans to fight it



Abu-Walid Dajani, 75, is embarking on what he calls the battle of his life: To prevent the Imperial Hotel from being closed down and taken over by the Ateret Cohanim organization that runs a yeshiva and settles Jews in the Old City and East Jerusalem.

The walls of the Old City of Jerusalem are visible through the window of Dajani’s office in the Imperial, seeming almost close enough to touch. The office walls bear pictures of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a young Jordanian King Hussein, together with family pictures going back a century. The hotel is located in a vast, grand building on Omar Ibn al-Khattab Square, by the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.

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The struggle will determine the fate of the Old City’s central plaza, says Dajani and many others. “This is the heart of Jerusalem,” he says. “I have to prepare myself for battle. My family has been living in Jerusalem for 800 years. That’s pages of history and I want my name to be there. I will never give up. I am loyal and if I die, I will die loyal and happy.”

Olivier Fitoussi

A month ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ateret Cohanim, which purchased the Imperial Hotel from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem 15 years ago. The court rejected the Patriarchate’s claim that the deal was illegal. Ateret Cohanim’s legal victory made it the owner of two huge buildings in al-Khattab Square: the Imperial and the Petra hotels. 

The last obstacle preventing the settler organization from taking possession of the buildings was evicting the residents, who also run the two hotels. Thus Dajani found himself on the front line in the battle against it. Ateret Cohanim didn’t dawdle. Within days of the court ruling, Dajani was served with two lawsuits, both on behalf of Richard Marketing Corp. – a shell company registered in the Virgin Islands, which was the legal entity through which Ateret Cohanim bought the hotel. 

The first suit demanded the premises be evacuated. “To hand over the Imperial Hotel free of any person or object,” the lawsuit states. The second suit demanded that Dajani pay Ateret Cohanim 10 million shekels ($2.8 million) in rent from 2005, when its agreement with the Patriarchate was signed. That’s more than double the amount Ateret Cohanim paid – $1.25 million – to buy the whole building with its 45 rooms, hotels and hallways.

Emil Salman

Dajani has the status of a protected tenant in the hotel, and evicting a protected tenant is usually a long and arduous legal process, yet even he seems to realize he doesn’t stand much chance of beating Ateret Cohanim. “I’m not religious but I do believe in God and sometimes miracles are needed,” he says. He’s placing his hopes on international pressure on the government to prevent his eviction. 

On Thursday, his struggle received support, albeit mainly symbolic, from the leaders of the Christian communities in Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and other church leaders visited the hotel and issued a bellicose statement against the eviction.

"We cannot remain silent while access to our holy sites is threatened and the hope of a lasting peace is diminished. As a community of justice, we demand that the rule of law is upheld, and stand united against any attempt to take Church properties by unlawful measures or to forcefully evict innocent tenants," the statement read.

“We warn against any such attempt, and we shall not fear to use all legitimate means to oppose and block this from occurring. We remain impassioned guardians of the status quo and will ensure that people of all faiths can flourish and thrive within the walls of this city."   

The patriarch’s inner circles are hinting that despite the Supreme Court ruling, they intend to take further legal action, and still have some cards up their sleeves.

The royal family

The Imperial Hotel was built in the 19th century by the Greek Orthodox Church to shelter pilgrims. It was the grandest hotel in Jerusalem in its day. It featured in photographs taken during the visit of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to the city in 1898, and in the ceremony marking the surrender of the Turkish forces that occupied Jerusalem to British General Edmund Allenby in December 1917. 

The hotel's management changed several times during the first half of the 20th century but always remained under the ownership of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which viewed it as a strategic asset in the city. In July 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, Dajani’s father Mohammed Taher Daoudi Dajani signed an agreement to rent the building and relaunched it as the Imperial Hotel. 

Emil Salman

The Dajanis are considered part of the Palestinian elite in Jerusalem; the men of the family have always played key roles in the city’s economy and politics. “I remember when I was six, I came to visit my father at this office and he gave me lunch money to buy a sandwich,” he recalls. “My childhood was here, in this building. In 1962, I came to tell my father that I got a scholarship to study hotel management in Switzerland. He threw me out because he wanted me to be a doctor or architect. I left with tears in my eyes, but I went to Switzerland anyway.”

After his studies Dajani took a job at the hotel and also founded the tourism school at Bethlehem University in 1973. He headed the coordination committee on tourism during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the 1990s.

The hotel has been at the center of a public and legal struggle since 2005. The news of its sale to Ateret Cohanim provoked uproar in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, leading to the unprecedented dismissal of the patriarch at the time, Irineos. In response, Irineos secluded himself in a tiny apartment in the Patriarchate building that he hardly ever leaves – though in recent weeks he’s been hospitalized.

The Patriarchate has always denied the deal, claiming in court that the transaction was fraudulent and key people in the church had been bribed. The signatory on the paperwork had been the Patriarchate’s financial adviser, Nikos Papadimas, who had allegedly been paid by Ateret Cohanim to promote the deal and fled the country immediately after sealing the agreement.

Financial arrangements
 
During the trial, a recording of a conversation between Papadimas and the head of Ateret Cohanim, Mati Dan, was played, during which Dan confirmed a financial arrangement between the association and Papadimas. It later transpired that Ateret Cohanim had paid Papadimas $10,000 in cash some years after the transaction. The Patriarchate’s attorneys also stressed that Dan didn’t come to court to explain matters. 

The Jerusalem District Court raised questions about the transaction, but ultimately approved it. Recently the Supreme Court did so, too. Jerusalem District Court Judge Gila Canfy Steinitz and the Supreme Court justices all mentioned their discomfort with Dan’s refusal to testify, but they accepted Ateret Cohanim’s position that the recording and other evidence did not prove corruption had taken place.

Steintz accepted the organization’s view that the tape was inadmissible as evidence because nobody testified about its existence in court, and it might have been edited. Touching on the money paid to Papadimas, Ateret Cohanim said it was regular assistance the organization provided to people with whom it worked, and who had encountered financial difficulties.

In the Palestinian street and within the church, there are complaints about how the church handled its legal battle, but Dajani stresses that he has no complaints against the Patriarch, whose picture greets visitors at the entrance to the Imperial. 

“If we were in America I could sue them for millions, but things work differently here,” Dajani says. “I have no doubt he’ll stand by me. We are in the same boat and he knows it.”

Sleeping pills

Since the Supreme Court ruling, Dajani has been consulting with lawyers, and also wrote a plea to Jordan’s King Abdullah, published in the al-Quds newspaper, to support the struggle.

He hopes to raise funds from the public for the fight against his eviction, stressing that if Ateret Cohanim wins, it could be the start of a domino effect. “There are a lot of stores here. If they go from store to store, from person to person, some won’t be able to take the pressure,” Dajani says. “My children and I are standing by each other and we’re strong, but I’m afraid the other tenants will leave.”

The entrance to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is at one end of the hotel and the entrance to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is at the other. “Soon they’ll have to ask for permission to enter their own property. Ateret Cohanim is disrupting life for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it must be stopped,” says Dajani.

In recent years he received several "direct and indirect" offers to voluntarily leave the hotel in exchange for a generous payment. “I could take the money but then I’d need ten sleeping pills to fall asleep at night, while today I only need two," he says. "Or I could take the money and have a heart attack and die. If I take it, the family’s honor has no future. The Dajani name has no future.”

The lawyer representing Ateret Cohanim, Avraham Moshe Segal, presented an assessment of the property showing that the demand that Dajani retroactively pay 10 million shekels in rent is reasonable, and even on the low side, compared to what is accepted in the hotel industry.

According to the property assessment, annual rent should be 10 percent of the hotel’s price upon its acquisition 14 years ago, though it could have also been calculated based on its present value, which is much higher.

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