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Israeli court approves settler group purchase of controversial Jerusalem properties

Greek Orthodox Patriarch appeal waved away after 14 years of legal battle over disputed and scandal-riven sales
Members of the Palestinian Christian community walk near Jaffa Gate where Petra and Imperial hotels are located in the Old City of Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel’s Supreme Court on Monday approved the purchase of three properties inside the Old City of Jerusalem by the Israeli settler organisation Ateret Cohanim, waving away an appeal by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

The three assets are of high importance due to their strategic locations in both the Christian and Muslim quarters of the Old City, which lies in occupied East Jerusalem.

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In 2004, Ateret Cohanim bought the leases to the properties through three foreign private companies.

Ateret Cohanim had located the properties and negotiated the price with the now-dismissed head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Patriarch Irenaios.

The properties include two famous hotels, the Petra and the Imperial, located by the Jaffa Gate. The Petra Hotel, a four-story building, was leased to Berisford Investments at $500,000 for 99 years, with the option of that time being doubled.

Richards Marketing Corporation purchased a similar lease on the two-storey Imperial Hotel and the shop below for $1.25m.

Meanwhile, Gallow Global Limited bought a lease contract for a property known as Beit al-Moadamyeh in the Muslim Quarter's Bab Huta neighbourhood for $55,000.

Scandal and protests

The deals' exposure in 2005 by Israeli newspaper Maariv engulfed the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in a scandal, and prompted protests among the sect's Palestinian community.

Jerusalem's Old City lies in the city's east, which was occupied by Israel in 1967. Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital for a future state, is illegal under international law.

With the patriarchate mired in controversy and allegations of bribery and fraud, Patriarch Irenaios was dismissed and replaced with Theophilos III in 2005.

The Supreme Court's decision has put an end to 14 years of a legal battle between Ateret Cohanim and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The case was heard by Israel's highest court after Jerusalem's district court approved the transactions on several legal grounds in August 2017.

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The Patriarchate's rejected appeal argued that the sales were corrupt and that Ateret Cohanim bribed Nicholas Papadimas, the head of the church's financial affairs in the city.

Papadimas, who had been based in Jerusalem, left without warning in 2005 after the deals came to light. He reappeared in 2013 when he was apprehended at Athens airport under an international arrest warrant.

The deals have outraged Palestinian Christians.

In January 2018, Palestinians protesting against church land sales to Israelis scuffled with Palestinian police in Bethlehem as they tried to block the arrival of Patriarch Theophilos III for Christmas celebrations.

Demonstrators clashed with club-wielding security forces and banged on the sides of police escort vehicles as the patriarch's black limousine headed towards the Church of the Nativity.