Christians believe high priest decided to betray Jesus here

Developers withdraw plans for luxury homes on Jerusalem’s Hill of Evil Counsel

David Sofer and Michael Steinhardt pull proposal for five apartment buildings on ancient, unspoiled site, for reasons not immediately clear

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The neighborhood of Abu Tor, just south of Jerusalem's Old City, contains a hilltop that Christianity believes to be the Hill of Evil Counsel and one of the last remaining unspoiled ridges surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City. December 16 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
The neighborhood of Abu Tor, just south of Jerusalem's Old City, contains a hilltop that Christianity believes to be the Hill of Evil Counsel and one of the last remaining unspoiled ridges surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City. December 16 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Two well-known Jewish investors have withdrawn plans to build dozens of luxury apartments on one of the last remaining unspoiled ridges surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City.

The proposal for five apartment buildings and a park on a hilltop that Christianity believes to be the Hill of Evil Counsel was opposed by area residents and archaeologists.

The reason for the plans’ withdrawal was not immediately clear.

An original plan for the site, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor, just south of the Old City, envisaged covering almost the entire site with buildings — a hotel, apartment buildings and an undefined “public buildings” space.

The most recent plan split the site roughly into two halves — one for building on, the other for green space.

American financier and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and David Sofer, a London-based Israeli businessman, had sought a special permit to bypass a prohibition on residential building contained in planning regulations, which the late former mayor Teddy Kollek advanced to limit construction in the Old City basin and the surrounding historic mountain ridges.

The regulations do allow for a hotel on the site.

A stage built by 19th century Greek Orthodox monks on top of an ancient watering hole at the Greek Orthodox compound in Abu Tor. (Sarit Uziely)

City sources confirmed that the plans had been withdrawn. They had already gone through the local and district planning committees and been filed, but the public objection period had not yet begun.

Michael Steinhardt attends a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Steinhardt and Sofer purchased a 99-year lease for the roughly one-hectare (2.5-acre) site from the Greek Orthodox Church.

They paid around $10 million to enable the church to pay off a debt to an earlier developer who had successfully claimed that under previous leadership, the church had breached a contract to lease the same land to him.

The hill is where Christians believe the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas and his advisers decided to betray Jesus to the Romans.

Christ Before Caiaphas, by Matthias Stom (1615-49).

Muslims associate the hilltop with Saladin’s general Abu Tor (Father of the Bull) who, according to legend, rode into battle against the Crusaders from the hill on the back of a white bull. He is believed to be buried within a property that still stands in the neighborhood. About a century ago, the Greek Orthodox Church cemented its claim to the hill by building a high wall that left the shrine just outside.

One of the few undeveloped areas in the capital, the site affords sweeping views of the Old City, the new city, the descent to the Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab to the east.

A view of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives from the Greek Compound in Abu Tor. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel staff)

The Jerusalem Municipality calls the site and the Jewish part of the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood Givat Hanania, after Caiaphus’s father-in-law. First-century CE Jewish historian Josephus Flavius recorded that Hanania was buried on this hill and had a great monument erected nearby. Josephus also recorded that the Roman general Pompey pitched his camp on the site when he conquered the city in the Siege of Jerusalem in 63 BCE.

The only area to have been excavated to date is a small, early-20th century church and the adjacent remains of a Byzantine church, along with two subterranean cisterns, one of which was converted into a church at an uncertain date. The developers said they would not touch this area.

This underground cistern was converted into a small church at some unknown date. The stones on the left-hand wall date from the Crusader period. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Several unsuccessful attempts to build on the Hill of Evil Counsel have been made over recent decades.

It is not known when, or whether, Steinhardt and Sofer’s company, Abu Tor Properties Ltd., will submit new plans for the site.

They are reportedly trying to find new architects.

Steinhardt, his Jerusalem-based lawyer Jonathan Shiff and the architecture firm from which Steinhardt and Sofer have reportedly separated, Ari Cohen Architecture and Planning, all declined to comment for this article. Sofer could not be reached.

Last year, The Times of Israel was able to disclose that David Sofer was the prime force behind several companies that have bought land from the Greek Orthodox Church for the purpose of development.

David Sofer (C) pictured with wife Cindy (L) at the opening reception of the Jewish Museum in London on March 16, 2010. (Desmond O’Neill Features Ltd)

Steinhardt was revealed as a partner in two of those companies.

In all these cases, the companies were registered offshore without any publicly accessible record of their owners.

These companies and another one involving a different group of investors, mostly anonymous too, caused panic among hundreds of homeowners who lease the land on which their houses and apartments have been built.

Plunged into uncertainty, they do not know who their new landowners are, whether they will renew the leases, and if so, for how much. Amidst all the uncertainty, the values of their properties have plummeted.

Pressure from homeowners has prompted a flurry of activity in the Knesset, where one lawmaker, Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to push a private member’s bill that would have the state confiscate the lands sold in return for compensation.

The justice minister has meanwhile charged Deputy Attorney General Erez Kamenitz to look into ways of protecting affected residents. A request by The Times of Israel to interview Kamenitz has been turned down.

Full disclosure: Sue Surkes, a reporter at The Times of Israel, has been an active opponent of the Givat Hanania development.

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