East Jerusalem: Israeli settlers seek to take over Armenian Quarter by force
A convoy of Israeli settlers' cars and motorcycles entered the Armenian Quarter in occupied East Jerusalem on Wednesday, looking to usurp the Armenian-held area, the community has said in a statement.
The Movement for the Protection and Preservation of the Armenian Quarter, in a post on Instagram, warned that tensions were high and that Israeli police had “without probable cause” arrested three Armenians, including a minor, while backing Israeli settlers.
“Instead of removing the trespassers, the Israeli police permitted a few settlers to continue their presence intended to possess the Armenian property,” said the community in a statement.
With Israel’s war on Gaza taking much of the world's attention, Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, including the Old City in East Jerusalem, have increasingly used the distraction to press illegal land claims.
The movement said that the attempt by Israeli settlers to overrun the “Armenian Gardens” - known as the “Cows' Garden” in the Old City of Jerusalem, was a “malicious attempt to change facts on the ground”.
“We are fighting now for the integrity of the Armenian and Christian quarters,” said Hagop Djernazian, a co-founder of the movement to save the Armenian quarter, and member of the Jerusalemite Armenian Community.
The dispute started after the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem signed a murky and secretive deal with a company named Zana Capital, leasing the historical Armenian gardens, to build a luxury hotel, he explained.
'We may face an existential threat, not only to the Armenian presence in Jerusalem, but also to the Christian'
- Hagop Djernazian, activist
“Unfortunately this deal includes manipulations and fraud,” said Djernazian, speaking to Middle East Eye.
The community now faces an existential threat from a deal that would see some 25 percent of the Armenian quarter sold on a 99-year lease to Israeli settler communities looking to purportedly build a luxury development.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem announced on 26 October that a letter was sent to the companies managing the development that the deal would be cancelled.
'We may face an existential threat'
Though signed in 2021, the deal became public in 2023, when one of the Israeli businesses sought to take ownership, sparking protests from the Armenian community.
“Since 26 October, the so-called Zana Company, which turns out was backed by settlers and Ateret Cohanim, a settler organisation trying to change the demographic makeup of the Old City into a Jewish majority, are trying to provoke and to take over parts of the land by force,” said Djernazian.
Israeli settlers had attempted to intimidate the community and the movement to save the Armenian Quarter by, amongst other things, bringing bulldozers and trucks to demolish walls and the land, said Djernazian.
“They brought in armed settlers two weeks ago to take over the land by force using armed settlers and attack dogs,” he added.
“Yesterday and today the so-called company brought a security company so they can take over the land by force with the support and cooperation of the Israeli police.”
The far-right Israeli government, headed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is also comprised of settlers, has created an even more permissive climate for such land grabs.
“Authorities are not doing anything to save and help the Armenian community,” said Djernazian, adding that “they are doing the opposite of saving the Armenian community. They are pressuring us.”
Djernazian said that they now believe Israeli settlers are behind the deal whereby the land was initially sold to an Australian businessman.
“These Israeli settlers are backed by the Israeli government, and ministers in the Israeli government are pressuring the community and putting the community in a great existential threat,” added Djernazian.
The future of the Armenian community and more broadly that of the wider Christian community in the Old City now hangs in the balance.
“If we succeed in this struggle to protect the integrity of the Armenian Quarter to protect our lands, we can continue and live in Jerusalem as we did since the fourth century by encouraging our youth to stay here,” said Djernazian.
“But, unfortunately, if we do not succeed to cancel the deal officially, we may face an existential threat, not only to the Armenian presence in Jerusalem, but also to the Christian presence, because this deal puts the Armenian and Christian quarters in great danger,” added Djernazian.
“Christians should unite and join forces with the Armenians in order to protect the status quo and the mosaic of the holy city of Jerusalem and also for us to have a future in this city,” he added.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.