[This article is the second part of The Armenian Quarter Files, a series of investigations into a controversial land deal in occupied East Jerusalem. In the first part, The New Arab Investigative Unit profiled Australian investor Danny Rothman].
On the night of 4 November 2023, Armenian Christian residents organised a peaceful sit-in over the alleged “illegal” construction on Armenian Patriarchate land in East Jerusalem. The event turned confrontational, when Jewish settlers turned up armed with rifles and dogs, requiring the intervention of Israeli police.
The confrontation continued well into the next day, when representatives of Xana Gardens Ltd, the company that is leasing the land, also showed up.
The New Arab (TNA) Investigative Unit was able to determine that at least one individual present at the confrontation is an active member of the Israeli settlement movement. This individual is a US citizen who, in the past, has been put in ‘administrative detention’ in the aftermath of the Shefa-Amr terror attack of 2005. Today, he describes himself as a “hilltop settlement activist”, and is involved in Israeli-proscribed settlement activities in the West Bank.
We have attempted to contact Danny Rothman, the director of Xana Gardens, and the American settler, regarding the nature of their supposed ties. We have emailed Mr. Rothman’s lawyer, and tried to reach him over the phone. We have also emailed and messaged over WhatsApp the American settler. At time of publication, we have not received any response from them.
Settler groups’ ‘underhanded dealings’
Danny Rothman (also known as Danny Rubinstein), the “mysterious” Australian investor behind the deal with the Patriarchate, was present during the 5 November confrontation. According to Armenian website 301, he reportedly “demanded the expulsion of the Armenians” from the property.
Local Armenian residents questioned the true motives behind the deal. The homes of many residents, threatened by displacement, were allegedly included in the deal.
"The New Arab (TNA) Investigative Unit was able to determine that at least one individual present at the confrontation is an active member of the Israeli settlement movement. This individual is a US citizen who, in the past, has been put in ‘administrative detention’ in the aftermath of the Shefa-Amr terror attack of 2005."
Palestinian Christians are increasingly being driven out of Jerusalem, sometimes through systematic attempts by settler organisations to take over church property.
In a communiqué from December 2021, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem stated that “radical groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter [...] often using underhanded dealings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their homes.”
This was best exemplified in the case of the New Imperial Hotel and Petra Hostel in East Jerusalem; the Greek Orthodox Church sold these properties to Ateret Cohanim, a radical settler organisation based in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.
The deal was mired with allegations of “delinquent behavior, which includes extortion and fraud,” according to the Church.
The true identity of the buyer was also kept secret through the use of shell companies. Nevertheless, after an almost two-decade long legal battle, multiple court rulings allowed the sale to go through.
The presence of armed settlers on the Armenian Patriarchate’s leased land represents a substantial escalation between the local residents and Xana Gardens Ltd.
On November 1, the Armenian Patriarchate announced that “a letter was sent on October 26, 2023 to Xana Gardens Ltd”, informing the latter that the July 2021 lease agreement was cancelled.
October 26 was also the day when, according to Armenian news website 301, “illegal construction work was uncovered” at the site of the land in question.
TNA was not able to verify when construction started at the site.
However, on the night of November 4, confrontations between local residents opposed to the construction work and “armed guards” drew in a couple of hundred individuals, requiring police intervention.
The investor and the far-right activist
Footage shared by Jerusalem’s Armenian community from 5 November, shows Saadia Hershkop, an American Jewish settler from Brooklyn, New York, standing in the vicinity of Mr. Rothman. According to a witness present during the standoff, Hershkop was very active that day.
At one point, as Mr. Rothman moves to confront the person recording the scene, Hershkop approaches the investor to speak with him.
Hershkop also actively participated in the 4 November confrontation. Armenian-Canadian journalist Shant Khatcherian shared a video from that night, in which Hershkop is seen interjecting an Israeli police officer’s request to move the dogs away from the sit-in.
Three witnesses independently confirmed that Hershkop was there, acting as a guard.
Who is Saadia Hershkop?
Saadia Hershkop is best known for his alleged association with Eden Natan-Zada, the perpetrator of the Shefa-Amr terror attack on 4 August 2005, which resulted in the killing of four Israeli Palestinian citizens and the wounding of 21 others. Natan-Zada was an Israeli army deserter.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the attack “a reprehensible act by a bloodthirsty Jewish terrorist who sought to attack innocent Israeli citizens.”
According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Natan-Zada committed his terror attack “in protest against Israel's disengagement from Gaza”.
Gaza’s disengagement plan was a proposal by Ariel Sharon to unilaterally dismantle the settlements within the Gaza strip, and evacuate all settlers from it. The Knesset approved the plan in February 2005, and implemented it in August of the same year.
In the aftermath of the attack, Hershkop, an 18-year old at the time, was put in administrative detention, according to Israeli media.
A leaked cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv from 12 August 2005 explains that, while Hershkop denied knowing Natan-Zada, he related “detailed information about Zada that a mere acquaintance presumably would not know”.
Israeli news website News1 reported then that Hershkop was subject to an order of deportation to the US “due to the fear that he would participate in acts of violence in order to harm the disengagement process”. He reportedly agreed to serve the 40 days of his detention in the US instead of inside an Israeli prison.
Reported links to ‘terrorist’ organisations
The leaked US embassy cable provides additional details on the circumstances of his detention.
In it, Hershkop denies being a member of Kach, claiming that Kach did not exist as it “has no office, no phones, no president”.
According to the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a US military policy think tank, the decision to outlaw the group came in the aftermath of the 1994 Hebron shooting Massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque.
The massacre saw 29 Palestinians killed and a further 125 wounded at the hands of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American extremist settler and supporter of Kach.
According to CDI, many Kach group leaders made statements in support of Goldstein at the time, calling him a “hero”.
"In response to Hershkop’s detention in 2005, Ben Gvir told Israeli news website Ynet that '[Ariel] Sharon's Bolshevik government will not deter the people of Kahane from continuing to fight against the treasonous government.'"
Although banned, Kach continued as a movement through multiple offshoots, including Kahane Chai (“Kahane lives”). Incidentally, according to the US cable, Hershkop was arrested in Israel in 2003 for “distribution of illegal propaganda for an illegal organization, Kahane”.
The US government also joined Israel in declaring Kahane Chai/Kach a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997. The designation was only removed in 2022, when the movement was considered “no longer engaged in terrorism or terrorist activity”. It remains on the list of
Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities.
Saadia Hershkop’s current activities
Hershkop never faced any legal consequences for his alleged activities from 2005.
He was soon able to return to Israel and continue his work within the settler movement.
In 2011, he was seen next to a giant menorah [seven-branched Jewish candelabrum], which had been built atop a hill overlooking Hebron in the West Bank. The hill is reportedly the location of the murder of 10-month old Shalhevet Pass, killed by Tanzim sniper Mahmud Amru.
Tanzim (meaning “Organisation”) was one the militant factions of the Palestinian Fatah movement.. According to the Israeli government, Mahmud Amru intentionally targeted the Israeli infant, shooting her in the head.
Today, Hershkop identifies himself as a “hilltop settlement activist” in Ramat Migron, the West Bank settlement outpost outlawed by Israel near Hebron. He lives in Kiryat Arba, also an illegal settlement, according to international law.
An online crowdfunding campaign suggests that Hershkop continues to have many run-ins with the law. The post indicates that Hershkop’s firearms have been reportedly seized, which could explain why he was not carrying weapons on November 4 and 5.
Links with Ben-Gvir
In 2005 Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is Israel’s current minister of national security, was a youth leader at Kach.
According to US-based Jewish outlet Tablet Magazine, “Ben-Gvir became active in the youth wings of the Kach and Kahane Chai parties in the mid-1990s.” Even though he was not a lawyer yet, Ben-Gvir would reportedly represent like-minded right-wing settler movement activists in court.
In response to Hershkop’s detention in 2005, Ben Gvir told Israeli news website Ynet that “[Ariel] Sharon's Bolshevik government will not deter the people of Kahane from continuing to fight against the treasonous government.”
"Saadia Hershkop is best known for his alleged association with Eden Natan-Zada, the perpetrator of the Shefa-Amr terror attack on 4 August 2005, which resulted in the killing of four Israeli Palestinian citizens and the wounding of 21 others."
According to the leaked US embassy cable, Honenu was the organisation that provided Hershkop with his lawyer during detention. It is also the same organisation that currently runs Hershkop’s crowdfunding “Legal Defense Fund” campaign.
We attempted to contact both Honenu and Ben-Gvir about their links to Hershkop. We have not received a reply at time of publication.
What’s next for the Armenian Quarter?
Since the incidents over the weekend, some of the residents have reportedly organised to watch over the Armenian Patriarchate’s property.
The Patriarchate, for its part, issued a communiqué on 6 November, stating that, after the 5 November altercation, “the two sides have agreed to disperse until the Patriarchate receives an answer to their sent [sic] cancellation letter.”
On the ground, however, escalation has continued.
Residents of the Armenian Quarter reportedly erected a barricade across the entrance to the leased land on 12 November, after a picture of a bulldozer on site was shared within the local community.
On 13 November, “two bulldozers attempted to tear down the barricade” before backing down, according to 301 correspondent Kegham Balian.
As escalation is likely to continue, and with the prospect of a long legal battle ahead, fears of settler violence against the Armenian community in Jerusalem appear to be legitimate.
In the period from October 7 to November 7, Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din “documented 185 incidents of settler violence in the West Bank, including the killing of seven Palestinians”. Some of these incidents were committed under the protection of soldiers, as reported by Yesh Din to The Times of Israel.
Although none of the incidents documented by Yesh Din occurred in East Jerusalem, the presence of armed settlers can only exacerbate an already tense situation.