The Christmas tree is up at the entrance to the Imperial Hotel in Jerusalem, but for its Palestinian hosts there is little festive cheer amid fears they could be evicted by a pro-settlement group.
The hotel, right inside Jaffa Gate in the Christian Quarter of the walled Old City, is at the center of a years-long ownership dispute between the group and the Palestinian tenants.
In June, the Supreme Court finally concluded that the settler organization Ateret Cohanim had legally bought the hotel, along with two other nearby buildings, from the Greek Orthodox Church in a controversial and secret 2004 deal.
The church has long denied this, however, and the tenants say they have continued to pay rent monthly to the church authorities.
Amid fears they could be kicked out at any moment, the tenants were last week given a temporary reprieve when another court froze the sale for 30 days, Maher Hanna, the Imperial’s lawyer, said.
While it appears he will still be there at least for Christmas, Abu Walid Dajani, the proprietor of the 48-room hotel, said he didn’t know whether the decision would be a turning point or just another obstacle in the 15-year struggle.
“The story can end forever and go to the garbage of history,” he said, or “the settlers complete the process for their own benefit.”
The family has rented the hotel since 1949 and currently pays NIS 200,000 a year ($57,000) to the Greek Orthodox Church.
But Dajani says Ateret Cohanim is now demanding he pay rent retroactively for the past 15 years, NIS 10 million (2.62 million euros) in all — money he says he simply doesn’t have.
The Church declined to comment.
Tricky property market
Property sales in Jerusalem are some of the most politically fraught in the world.
Israel took over mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later extended sovereignty over it, in a move never recognized by the international community.
It now considers the entirety of Jerusalem its capital, citing the Jewish historical and biblical connection there.
The Palestinians see East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of their future state, and view the growing Israeli presence as an existential threat.
The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest and wealthiest church in the Holy Land, commanding massive riches, largely in land portfolios dating back hundreds of years.
It faces regular accusations of facilitating settlement growth by selling or leasing properties to Israel in predominantly Palestinian areas.
In the 2004 accord, the Church is alleged to have made a deal with Ateret Cohanim, which works to populate the Old City and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods with Jewish residents by purchasing properties from non-Jewish owners.
When it was revealed, the sale triggered widespread Palestinian anger and led to the 2005 dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I.
The Church and the tenants have been fighting back ever since.
Many Greek Orthodox Palestinians still accuse their religion’s leadership of undermining Palestinian connections to Jerusalem by selling property.
The Israeli government is often wary of angering the Christian population in the city, aware both of Jerusalem’s delicate balance and the need to retain the support of Christians in the United States and other countries.
Hanna said the freeze is for only 30 days and was ordered due to Ateret Cohanim’s failure to file some court papers in time. The organization declined to comment.
But Elif Sabbagh, a researcher specializing in the investments of the Greek Orthodox Church, said the delay was convenient for the current Patriarch Theophilos III.
“It allows him to appear as a victor on the eve of Christmas celebrations,” he said.
Yet Sabbagh said it may yet prove a Pyrrhic victory, and a source close to Ateret Cohanim said the organization was confident that it would ultimately still take control of the buildings.
A few meters (yards) from The Imperial, the Petra Hostel, another hotel in the case, is rapidly sliding into disrepair.
The walls are peeling, the tiles broken and the bathrooms smell of mold. There are hardly any guests, and the few there are look unimpressed.
The Israeli authorities have banned all repairs until the case is finalized, a representative of the Petra Hostel said, without giving further details.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he didn’t hold out much hope the latest decision would mean an end to their woes, saying he not longer trusted any side.
“They are all liars, from 2004 until today we are fighting,” he said.
“We may have won this battle, but not the war.”