Israel Set to Advance Bill Nationalizing Land Secretly Sold by Church

Reworded bill excludes all references to the role of churches in fire sale to developers ■ Lawmaker: 'We will not allow thousands of Jerusalem residents to be harmed'

Protesters outside the shuttered Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, February 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

A bill that would enable the state to nationalize lands that were sold by churches to private developers in Jerusalem has been reworded and will be advanced next week.

The bill’s sponsor, MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), removed all references to the role of the churches in the real estate deals – in which they sold valuable lands in central Jerusalem to private developers whose identities remain secret. Church leaders had threatened to confront state authorities over the issue.

The name of the bill was also changed from the church lands law to the Jerusalem lessors law.

Azaria had negotiated with both the Foreign Ministry and church representatives to calm tensions surrounding the move.

“We proved to the churches that we aren’t talking about an event linked to church lands, but about a few developers who are working to undermine residents and who want to evict them from their homes,” Azaria said. “We will not allow thousands of Jerusalem residents to be harmed.”

Over the past several years, the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches have sold swathes of land containing thousands of apartments in such neighborhoods as Rehavia, Talbieh and Nayot. These lands had been leased to the Jewish National Fund (also known as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) and private organizations in the early years of the 20th century, and the leases have expired.

Under the lease agreements, these and other lands whose leases are to expire in the next 30 years were to be returned to the church with no compensation.

Owners of these apartments are currently at the mercy of these private developers to whom the land has been sold. They have no idea if they will be able to retain their homes and at what cost. They have stopped investing in the apartments, and real estate prices in these areas – among the most upscale neighborhoods in Jerusalem – have plummeted.

Although the original bill had the support of the Justice Ministry in principle, it faced difficulties – not least because it is retroactive.

The original bill authorized the finance minister, with the approval of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, to seize lands that were sold from the beginning of the decade and pay compensation to the companies that purchased them.

In February, the bill’s advancement was halted after church leaders expressed concern that if passed, it would impair their ability to make real estate deals, which constitute a significant component of the churches’ income. Their protest included closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to worshippers for three days.