Two dilapidated couches, a handful of battered chairs and a well-used grill sit in the empty lot. More debris is sprinkled around them — pieces of an old shoe, broken Heineken bottles, the rusty innersprings of an old mattress that somebody forgot here years ago.
These are some of the items lying around the plot, adjacent to two busy Jerusalem thoroughfares, that was once designated as the site of the American embassy. For decades, this piece of land has lain barren, a gaping hole in the heart of the capital’s bustling Talpiot neighborhood that nobody paid much attention to. But now that the incoming US administration is announcing its intention to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this piece of land, on the corner of Hebron Road and Daniel Yanovsky Street, could soon find itself in the global spotlight.
As desolate as this plot may look today, it has a rich history and just might face a controversial future. The Arab world and particularly the Palestinians are sure to protest any country that wants to move its embassy to Jerusalem, regardless of the exact location. But Palestinian activists have claimed since the 1980s that this particular plot belongs at least partially to them and that it would be “unbecoming” for the US to establish an embassy “on land that is stolen property.”
The little-known story of this piece of land goes back to the British Mandate era, when it housed the so-called Allenby Barracks, named after the UK’s General Edmund Allenby who operated an army base there. Later, the State of Israel maintained a border police station there.
In the 1980s, American politicians, led by Republican Senator Jesse Helms, urged the administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy to the city. In 1988, a law was passed calling for two “diplomatic facilities” to be built in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In the last days of the Reagan presidency, on January 18, 1989, US ambassador to Israel William Brown and Israel Lands Authority deputy director Moshe Gatt signed an agreement according to which a plot of land in Jerusalem would be leased from Israel to the US for 99 years, for $1 per year.
“The fifteen-page ‘Land Lease and Purchase Agreement’ referred only to ‘the Jerusalem property,’ but almost immediately reports surfaced — later confirmed — that the land in question was located in what was known as the Allenby Barracks, the site of the British army’s Jerusalem garrison during the Mandate,” Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi wrote in a 2000 article for the Journal of Palestine Studies.
According to Khalidi, the plot is 31,250 square meters (7.7 acres).
“Ever since the signature of the 1989 lease agreement and the insistent reports linking the site to the Allenby Barracks, Palestinian circles have questioned the lease’s legality on the grounds that the site of the envisaged embassy was Palestinian refugee property confiscated by the Israeli authorities, along with other refugee properties, since 1948,” Khalidi wrote. “More particularly, it was alleged that the site was part of an Islamic waqf.” (The Waqf is a Muslim religious trust active in Jerusalem.)
A few years later, in 1995, the Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed, calling on the administration to recognize the Holy City as Israel’s capital and relocate the embassy there. However, the law allowed for the president to waive the move if he or she deemed it detrimental to American national security interests. Since its passing, every US president — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — has signed the waiver every six months, despite Bush and Clinton having promised to move the embassy during their respective campaigns.
For this reason, many observers scoffed in disbelief when Donald Trump promised to relocate the embassy during a speech to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in March. But on Monday a top aide made headlines when she said that fulfilling this particular campaign promise was a “very big priority” for the president-elect.
Later on Monday, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Trump aides have started to scout out possible sites and that the move “was closer than ever.” The report indicated that a possible location for the embassy could be adjacent to the US Consulate building on 14 David Flusser Street, which is located in Arnona, less than 20 minutes’ walk from the site of the former Allenby Barracks.
The US Consulate-General in Jerusalem currently operates two facilities in Jerusalem: the main branch on Agron Street (where it has owned a building since 1912) and the Consular Section on Flusser Street, which opened in 2010, replacing a building on Nablus Road, in East Jerusalem, which the US had been leasing since 1952. In 2014, the US purchased a building adjacent to the facility on Flusser Street — home to the Diplomat Hotel — which currently houses new immigrants. The Israeli authorities reportedly say that several years are needed to vacate the building.
Almost two centuries of representation
The US sent its first consul to Jerusalem in 1844, more than a century before the State of Israel was founded. Some 13 years later, the administration established a permanent consular presence in the Old City. The mission on Agron Street was declared a Consulate General in 1928, representing the US in Jerusalem (East and West), the West Bank and Gaza “as an independent mission,” since the US does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.
It is unclear at time of writing whether Trump’s team is seriously considering moving the embassy — which has been in its current location on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street since the late 1960s — to the Diplomat Hotel site adjacent to the Arnona consulate. It is possible that the president-elect and his aides are unaware that the US already has a large site earmarked for an embassy here at the former Allenby Barracks; this might seem inconceivable, but his transition team has reportedly not been discussing the embassy move with the State Department. Or it could be that the site has been deemed unsuitable, perhaps from a security point of view, given that it is located immediately adjacent to two busy streets, residential buildings and a playground.
But the former Allenby Barracks, situated in pre-1967 Israel but very close to the pre-1967 Green Line, may be most controversial due to its disputed ownership.
According to an article in a 2000 publication from the Badil Resource Center for Palestine Residency and Refugee Rights, 19 Palestinian families from Jerusalem “have been traced as owners of the property.”
A small part of the property was requisitioned by Britain during the Mandate period, the article states. The rest is composed of five parcels: one belonged to the Waqf and four were rented from private owners until May 1948, when the State of Israel was founded.
Walid Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar, wrote that activists — himself included — challenged the Land Lease and Purchase Agreement mere months after it was signed in 1989. Critics argued that the lease not only constituted a dramatic change in US policy — which does not recognize anyone’s sovereignty over Jerusalem before a final-status peace agreement is concluded — but also implied an American admission that Israel owned this piece of land.
In June 1989, the State Department replied to these complaints by stating that it was “aware of claims that Islamic Trust (Waqf) holds an interest in a portion of the agreed site in Jerusalem” but had not been able “to locate any record of or support for this claim during a thorough title search completed by us.” A possible relocation of the embassy would be addressed “only in the context of a negotiated settlement of the West Bank and Gaza.”
Ten years later, in 1999, a senior State Department official acknowledged that the Land Lease and Purchase Agreement “identified particular property” for the purpose of an embassy that “might be leased to the US by the government of Israel under certain conditions,” according to the article in the Badil journal.
“As of today, however, the US has not entered into a lease for this or any other property under the Agreement.” According to paragraph 2.1 entitled “Principle Terms of the Lease and Purchase … the Government of Israel will immediately initiate all measures required for obtaining the sole and lawful ownership of the properties, free from any encumbrances or third party claims.”
But Khalidi argued that the position that the 1989 lease had not gone into effect “flies in the face of the wording of the lease itself.”
Khalidi, who taught at Oxford, Harvard and the American University of Beirut and founded the Institute for Palestine Studies, did extensive research into the most minute details of the question over the ownership. Concluding his 8,000-word article on the matter, he argued that the plot of the Allenby Barracks is “confiscated refugee land” that the UK had no claims to, and that Israel had thus no right to lease it to the US.
“With all that Jerusalem connotes, it is, to say the least, unbecoming for the United States’s future embassy in that city to be built on land that is stolen property,” Khalidi wrote.
Today, the Palestinians are vocal in their opposition to the entire notion of a possible relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.
“I hope that the new administration will carefully measure its policy toward the city and continue to adhere to the declared and official position of the US about Jerusalem,” Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief Palestine Liberation Organization representative to the US, told The New York Times this week. “Taking sides with Israel on such a sensitive and highly emotional issue will further escalate tension in an area that is already volatile.”
The American embassy in Tel Aviv did not reply to several Times of Israel queries on the disputed ownership of the Allenby Barracks site. In an email, an embassy official stated: “Since Israel’s founding, Administrations of both parties have maintained a consistent policy of recognizing no state as having sovereignty over Jerusalem. We remain committed to this long-standing policy. Every US Administration, Republican or Democrat, has taken the position that the status of Jerusalem must be permanently resolved through negotiations between the parties.”
In Israel, the wish to see the embassy in Jerusalem is relatively widespread, shared by politicians from most of the way across the political spectrum (though emphatically excluding the Arab parties).
“No relationship between two countries is so close as the relationship between Israel and the US, and therefore it is an anomaly that Washington never recognized Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital,” said Deputy Minister Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US.
“The issue is not where the American embassy will be,” continued Oren, who before entering politics was a historian specializing on US-Israel ties. “It is that US recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This move need not prejudice the peace process in any way.”
He added: “I don’t care where the embassy is built, as long as it’s in Jerusalem.”