'You Want a Girl? How Many?': Tapes Reveal How Right-wing Group Tried to Make East Jerusalem Jewish

Right-wing groups often used coercion tactics to acquire Palestinian property in East Jerusalem

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Matityahu Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization, holds a Torah scroll as part of a Jewish procession in Silwan in East Jerusalem last year
Matityahu Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization, holds a Torah scroll as part of a Jewish procession in Silwan in East Jerusalem last yearCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

“You want a girl? One, two, how many do you want ... how old do you want?” The speaker is Matityahu Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization and a driving force behind Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. He is offering a girl, plus Viagra if needed, to the Palestinian owner of a property his organization seeks to acquire.

The above conversation took place about two decades ago. Since then, Ateret Cohanim has acquired many properties.

This and other recordings obtained by Haaretz offer a glimpse into how Jewish groups acquire Palestinian property in East Jerusalem. In them, Dan and other Ateret Cohanim employees, including the group’s attorney, Eitan Geva, speak freely about how their end justifies any means. Aside from offering sex services (as long as the girls aren’t Jewish), they threaten to publicize the negotiations, which could endanger the Palestinian owner’s life, if he refuses to sell.

In one recording, Geva tells an owner’s family, “Either you close up the place and transfer it to us, or you go to court and it’ll be a blunder: It will become clear that your father or your husband did all this for the Jews, as an agent of the Jews. There are two ways to do this, quietly or noisily. For you, quietly is better.”

Dan also describes ways to obscure transactions, including the use of fictitious intermediaries and companies registered in overseas tax shelters. In addition, he discusses a man called “Hai.” A former close associate of Dan’s said “Hai” is a senior official of the Greek Orthodox Church who helped Dan to acquire church properties with Palestinian tenants.

Dan has close ties with cabinet ministers, Knesset members and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Since the 1980s, he has been a key figure in acquiring Palestinian properties in East Jerusalem for Jewish settlement, either from Palestinians or from the state, if the state determined they were formerly owned by Jews. In the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, for instance, there are now about 1,000 Jewish residents connected to Ateret Cohanim. There are also some 20 Jewish families in the Silwan neighborhood.

In 2005, a Palestinian resident of Silwan told Haaretz how Dan acquired the building known as Beit Yonatan. Dan took the Palestinian, who had built the building illegally and lived there with his family, on a trip to America that include call girls and casinos. One night, Dan left him alone with two women. That same night, Ateret Cohanim, with police backing, evicted the Palestinian family from Beit Yonatan. Dan never denied this story.

This might surprise people who know that Ateret Cohanim also runs a yeshiva headed by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who is noted for his strict rulings on female modesty and the sanctity of the family. But the tapes indicate that such methods aren’t uncommon.

“I’ll give you the money,” Dan is heard telling a Palestinian property owner in the tape quoted in the first paragraph. “Take whoever you want. You want a girl? Take a girl with you.” They discuss how many girls and the desired age (18 to 22). The Palestinian specifies a “Russian” girl. Dan also offers Viagra.

After the seller leaves the room, Dan tells another person, “It went well, eh?” The other person says there will be no problem getting “a prostitute,” a room for the meeting and Viagra.

At that point, Dan sets a condition: “Don’t bring a Jewish girl.” The other man responds, apparently referring to prostitutes, “There are no Jewish girls in Israel today, all the girls are non-Jewish Russians.”

“Really? You’re sure?” Dan asks.

Next, he proposes having the seller examined by a doctor before giving him the Viagra. That angers the other man.

“The problem is you talk about all kinds of things, but you don’t pay,” he says. “You say, let’s bring this, let’s bring that, and it all costs money.” Dan responds, “If he likes porn so much, use that with him.”

Sex services aren’t Ateret Cohanim’s only method of persuasion. In one tape, Dan promises the seller that he’ll work via an intermediary. “I’ll build it so someone very strong, with a good reputation, will be up front, so that nobody will make any trouble,” he says.

The seller asks that the money be transferred through a company registered overseas and is promised one registered in the British Virgin Islands. Ateret Cohanim has at least 10 shell companies registered in overseas tax shelters.

Dan also asks about other problems the seller might have, like unresolved issues with the Israel Tax Authority or the Jerusalem municipality, and about the health of other relatives who might have rights in the property.

The issue of relatives also arose during a discussion of a different deal. In that recording, Ateret Cohanim personnel discuss ways to convince the relatives that their father has died in order to reach an agreement with them over an East Jerusalem property.

The person close to Dan described one additional tactic. After the contract is signed, Ateret Cohanim will often threaten to publicize the sale agreement — something that could endanger the seller’s life — unless the seller significantly lowers the agreed-upon price.

“What can the Arab do?” this source said. “Ask for the money? Go to court? They exploit his weakness. When I asked Mati ‘Why are you cheating these people?’ he said, “We didn’t cheat them, we simply didn’t pay.’ That’s how he sees it; in his view, it isn’t cheating. Nobody can sue them.”

Jerusalem's Petra and Imperial hotels. The properties are part of the Greek Orthodox Church's controversial real estate deals.Credit: Emil Salman

The recordings also shed light on a legal battle now being waged in the Supreme Court between Ateret Cohanim and the Greek Patriarchate over three East Jerusalem buildings sold to Ateret Cohanim in 2004 by the deposed former patriarch, Irenaios. The church wants the sale canceled, saying the price was unreasonable and the deal stemmed from corruption under Irenaios. The Jerusalem District Court rejected its suit, so the church appealed.

A recording from a few years before that sale proves that at least for one building, the Petra Hotel near Jaffa Gate, Dan knew the $500,000 price was far below its real value. In this recording, someone proposed that Ateret Cohanim pay $4 million for a protected tenancy. Protected tenancy fees are usually around half the price of a purchase or a long-term lease.

Dan responded that an assessor valued the tenancy at $1.3 million. The other person retorted that buying the property would cost $10 million. Dan considered that too low. If purchased, “it would be worth $100 million,” he said.

Even assuming he was exaggerating, Dan clearly knew the building was worth far more than $500,000. Yet for that price, Ateret Cohanim got not only the four-story Petra Hotel, but another building next door which one source said is worth “at least $2 million” due to its extremely desirable location.

The assessment Dan cited in the recording was apparently never presented in court. Instead, Ateret Cohanim submitted an assessment valuing the hotel at just 1.2 million shekels ($350,000). That convinced the district court the $500,000 price was reasonable.

The person close to Dan said the low price might have resulted from Ateret Cohanim’s connections with the church, and particularly the man called Hai, who is described in the recordings as someone able to influence church policy on property sales.

Dan and Geva both declined to comment for this report.

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