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Inside storyTwo narratives clash in dispute over Jerusalem properties

Old City hotelier facing eviction: ‘Biden, give Christians 10 minutes of your visit’

Abu el-Walid Dajani, whose family has leased Imperial Hotel since 1949, says ‘Palestinian heritage endangered’; new leaseholder Ateret Cohanim: ‘Jews entitled to live everywhere’

Sue Surkes

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

The Imperial Hotel (left) and the Petra Hostel (right), located between Jaffa Gate and the Arab market in Jerusalem's Old City, June 21, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
The Imperial Hotel (left) and the Petra Hostel (right), located between Jaffa Gate and the Arab market in Jerusalem's Old City, June 21, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The manager of an Old City hotel whose lease has been bought by a right-wing Jewish organization wants US President Joe Biden to give church leaders “just ten minutes” when he visits Israel next month to hear their concerns and reassure them that Christianity will be safe in Jerusalem.

Abu el-Walid Dajani, 78, runs the 44-room Imperial Hotel, built just inside the Jaffa Gate in time to accommodate officers of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, who paid a state visit to the city in 1898.

In 1963, Dajani and his brother took over the running of the business from their father, who had leased the building from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in 1949. Dajani’s son and daughter plan to take it over from him.

In 2004, in circumstances that have been heavily disputed, the Patriarchate, which owns the building and the land on which it was built, sold long-term leases for the Imperial Hotel (for $1.25 million), the Petra Hostel next door ($500,000), and a third property in the Christian quarter called Muzamiya House ($55,000) to three British Virgin Islands-registered shell companies connected to Ateret Cohanim.

Ateret Cohanim is a religious Zionist organization committed to settling Jews in non-Jewish-owned buildings in and around the Old City.

Legal wrangling over the sale came to an end earlier this month when the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision not to reopen the case or block the transfer of rights to the three buildings to the Jewish organization.

Pictured on June 21, 2022, Abu el-Walid Dajani, who runs the Imperial Hotel inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, shows a copy of a 2005 article in the Maariv newspaper that revealed the sale of the hotel’s lease the year before to a shell company acting on behalf of Ateret Cohanim. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In a message to Biden, Dajani said, “When you come to Jerusalem, the priority is to meet for ten minutes with the heads of churches to listen to them and to reassure them and Christianity in the Holy Land.”

Dajani is now fighting two legal cases, the Patriarchate’s lawyer, Assad Mazzawi, confirmed.

The first, in the Jerusalem District Court, demands that Dajani pay rent to the new lease owners of NIS 10 million ($2.9 million) to cover the period from 2004.

The second, being fought in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, is an eviction case. Dajani, according to Mazzawi, has protected tenancy under the terms of 1972 legislation, which gives the status to any tenant who began leasing a property before August 20, 1968, or to anyone who has paid key money at any time. If the protected tenant dies, his wife inherits the status, and when she dies, the children take it on, Mazzawi explained.

Abu el-Walid Dajani holds an 800-page eviction order in his office at the Imperial Hotel in Jerusalem’s Old City on June 21, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Eviction is the tsunami for me,” Dajani said, adding that the hotel provided an income for 11 families.

Dajani, a Muslim who said his family had lived in Palestine for 700 years, including in 14 properties in the Germany Colony neighborhood of West Jerusalem until 1948, claimed that the hotel and the money were of no importance compared with the threat to the “Christian and Palestinian heritage” of the Jaffa Gate area.

“The Jaffa Gate has been raped,” he said. “Where is the Christian world, the Muslim world, on this issue?”

“I have written to kings and heads of state and I get letters of sympathy. But sympathy and solidarity are not enough. I cannot stand before these people alone. Heads of state need to put pressure on the Israeli government in order to secure these properties. This deal was not done in good faith.”

A photo of Abu el-Walid Dajani (right) and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll on the wall of the Imperial Hotel in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 21, 2022. Theophilus became patriarch after the lease sales. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Dajani said that the Latin patriarch passed the hotel daily on his way to the Holy Sepulchre Church and that he feared that in the future, if Ateret Cohanim succeeded in taking over the building, “yeshiva students will be throwing tomatoes and rotten eggs at him, such is the hatred.”

While the Imperial Hotel was enjoying 90 percent occupancy according to Dajani, things at the shabby Petra Hostel, a few doors down, were quiet.

Entrance to the Petra Hostel at the start of the Arab Market in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 21, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israsel)

The manager there, who withheld his name and forbade any photography, would not say how many rooms were occupied.

Pointing to a locked door, he said that Ateret Cohanim had taken over 18 rooms on the ground floor in late March, leaving him 26 rooms on upper floors, only 10 of which he could use because he was “not allowed to renovate” while court cases were ongoing.

Mazzawi explained that the Petra Hostel is divided into two sections. Bankruptcy proceedings are ongoing against the company that ran the upper section, where the manager was sitting.

The Petra Hostel near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Gabrielw.tour , CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The ground floor section, known as Little Petra, has been occupied by Jews since March 27. The shell company there obtained an eviction order in February, after an 11-year fight, he explained. But the battle continues because the eviction case failed to name the original leaseholder’s daughter, who claims that she cannot be forced to leave.

The Daween family, which lives in the third building whose lease was sold, also has protected tenancy, according to Mazzawi.

For Ateret Cohanim’s executive director Daniel Luria, who said he couldn’t talk about anything related to the three buildings while proceedings were going through the courts, there was no difference between Arabs buying real estate in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem (he said some 4,000 had done so, and that there was “nothing wrong with it,”) and Jews buying from Muslims or Christians in and around the Old City.

Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, on June 21, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In the case of the Imperial Hotel, he maintained that “nobody is being kicked out.” Regarding the Petra Hostel, the lease purchase signified a “return of Jewish ownership,” he said.

The Petra Hostel was built by a Gibraltarian Jew named Yosef Amzaleg, he said. Amzaleg later sold it to the Greek Orthodox patriarch, who leased it to another Jew, Yerachmiel Amdursky.

Prompted either by a massive earthquake in 1927 (which has left its mark on one of the hotel’s window lintels), or by Arab riots in 1929, Amdursky packed up and moved his hotel to Ben Yehuda Street in West Jerusalem in 1931. In 1948, it was blown up by a car bomb.

Noted Luria, “When the Greek Church acquired [the Petra Hotel], nobody said they were kicking out Jews.”

Ateret Cohanim has settled around 1,000 Jewish families in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, 150 families on the Mount of Olives, roughly 40 families in a once-Jewish area of the mainly Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, and 10 in Kidmat Zion, which abuts Palestinian Abu Dis.

Under the 1994 Oslo Accords, Abu Dis was envisaged as the Palestinian capital.

Luria said that a plan to build a neighborhood in Kidmat Zion, currently a barren slope, would be lodged in the coming weeks.

“Jews, in particular, as the indigenous people here, have the natural, historical and ethical right to be able to buy and live in any centimeter or inch in and around Jerusalem and anywhere in the Land of Israel,” he declared.

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.

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