[This article is the fourth part of The Armenian Quarter Files, a series of investigations into a controversial land deal in occupied East Jerusalem].
On the morning of 28 December 2023, a group of masked men descended on the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, and started dismantling a fence surrounding the quarter’s parking lot in the Cows’ Garden area.
Members of the local Armenian community had recently erected this barrier. For almost a year, they have been protesting a controversial land lease agreement between the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and Xana Gardens Ltd, an Israeli firm owned by the ‘mysterious’ Australian Jewish investor Danny Rothman.
The presence of the masked men led to a confrontation with Armenian community members, requiring the intervention of the Israeli police to separate the two sides.
Contrary to initial reports describing the confrontation as a “brawl” between “some Arab Muslim men and some men from the Armenian community”, court documents obtained by The New Arab (TNA) Investigative Unit show that Xana Gardens had actually hired the masked assailants.
The documents suggest that these individuals travelled for two and half hours to Jerusalem to carry out the work of dismantling the fence, bringing knives, batons, pepper spray and a dog with them.
The controversy around the deal started in April 2023, when news broke out that some 13% of the Armenian Quarter in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem was leased to Xana Gardens to construct a luxury hotel.
The homes of some Jerusalem Armenians, threatened by displacement, were allegedly included in the deal.
Palestinian Christians are increasingly being driven out of Jerusalem, sometimes through systematic attempts by settler organisations to take over church property.
The Armenian Quarter is especially susceptible to these attempts as it intersects the main access road between Israeli West Jerusalem and the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, making it “prime real estate in Israeli eyes”.
Both the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have withdrawn their recognition of Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, who signed off on the deal.
Eventually, the Armenian Patriarchate reversed course, and announced on 1 November 2023 that it had informed Xana Gardens of the cancellation of the lease agreement.
According to the state prosecutor, the vehicles of the masked men contained 'batons, a quantity of pepper spray, knives, an electric saw'. The group had also brought a dog, which they claimed they had taken for a walk with them.
Things have continued to escalate ever since.
Construction works saw the destruction of a short wall that used to separate the parking lot from other Armenian Patriarchate property.
As a consequence, members of the Armenian community erected a fence to replace the wall, and set up a vigil to monitor any other encroachment.
On 4-5 November 2023, Danny Rothman confronted the protestors, accompanied by a group of armed Jewish settlers. Also present was Arab Christian businessman George Warwar, who allegedly owns almost half the shares of Xana Gardens, according to the Armenian Patriarchate.
The New Arab contacted Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum over email to ask how she was able to establish that 'Arab Muslims' were involved in the confrontation. 'I was made aware of the incidence [sic] and I spoke to the police who informed me of the brawl and of the arrests,' she said.
Fears of the involvement of settler organisations in the deal were further substantiated by the emergence of a picture taken at Jerusalem's Waldorf Astoria Hotel and supposedly showing Rothman and Warwar speaking with representatives of Ateret Cohanim.
Ateret Cohanim is a radical settler organisation based in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, known for having acquired Greek Orthodox Church properties through what has been described as “delinquent behaviour, which includes extortion and fraud”.
All Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City, are illegal under international law.
TNA contacted Daniel Luria, the executive director of Ateret Cohanim, to inquire whether his organisation is involved in the Armenian Patriarchate land deal.
He said that “Ateret Cohanim has no connection whatsoever to the acquisition (long term lease) of the Armenian property in question inside the old city of Jerusalem.”
TNA contacted Danny Rothman over email and George Warwar over WhatsApp and phone to ask for comments about this article. We also contacted the lawyers of Xana Gardens over email. At time of publication, we have not received any response from them.
In December 2023, Attorney Itamar Miron spoke to Israeli newspaper Haaretz on behalf of Xana Gardens, saying: “It is clear that the Palestinian Authority (and other foreign entities) have applied pressure a number of times on the patriarchate to withdraw from the deal. According to reports that have reached my clients, this is heavy pressure, and illegal, including financial harm to the patriarchate.”
"It is clear that the idle claims are intended to create a legal pretext for the Palestinian Authority's claim that Jewish-owned companies must be forbidden to own land in the Old City of Jerusalem,” he added.
A “brawl” over a fence
In a Facebook livestream recorded on the morning of 28 December 2023 by Father Tiran Hakobyan, who works at the Armenian Patriarchate, about a dozen men can be seen taking down the structure. One of the men is using an electric saw to cut the wired part of the fence.
While some of the men were wearing caps and sunglasses, others covered their faces with gaiter masks or hoodies.
As more members of the Armenian community started to gather around, a few masked men pulled out what looked like quick-release pepper spray, and used it to disperse the crowd.
Retaliation quickly followed. Two members from the Armenian community rushed forward, carrying sticks and spraying a fire extinguisher. The police intervened shortly after.
A religiously motivated crime?
Less than two hours later, the Armenian Patriarchate issued an “urgent communiqué”, stating that “a massive coordinated physical attack was launched” against the Patriarchate’s clergymen, as well as Jerusalem’s Armenian community.
“Over 30 armed provocateurs in ski-masks with lethal and less-than-lethal weaponry including powerful nerve-agents [...] broke into the grounds of the Cow’s [sic] garden and began their vicious assault,” stated the communiqué.
TNA was not able to confirm the number of masked men who were present in the quarter that day. We were also unable to determine whether nerve agents had been used in the attack. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) classifies pepper spray as a less-lethal riot control agent.
According to a local resident who was present at the confrontation, some of them were from Haifa, while others came from Israel’s Northern District. “Some were [Palestinian Arab] bedouins too, judging by their accent,” he told TNA.
'The authorities should do everything necessary to prevent and to make sure that communities - not only the Armenian community, and not only the Armenian Quarter - will be a safe place to live,”'Hagop Djernazian, local Armenian resident and co-founder of SaveTheArQ, told The New Arab.
For the Armenian Patriarchate, however, it was pretty clear who was responsible for the attack.
“We call upon the Israeli government and Police to start an investigation against Danny Rothman (Rubinstein) and George Warwar [also known as George Haddad] for organising their continuous criminal attacks on the Armenian Patriarchate and Community,” read the statement.
According to Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, the police did receive the communiqué, but did not confirm at the time whether it had found links between Rothman, Warwar and the masked men.
The Jerusalem Post also spoke with Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Jerusalem deputy mayor in charge of foreign relations. She stated that “there was an unfortunate incident where some Arab Muslim men and some men from the Armenian community got into a brawl in the old city of Jerusalem.”
“The city of Jerusalem will not tolerate any criminal activity, whether religiously motivated or otherwise, and the police will prosecute those responsible,” Hassan-Nahoum added.
TNA contacted Hassan-Nahoum over email to ask how she was able to establish that “Arab Muslims” were involved in the confrontation. She explained that she was told so by the Jerusalem police.
“I was made aware of the incidence [sic] and I spoke to the police who informed me of the brawl and of the arrests,“ she said.
Hagop Djernazian, a local Armenian resident who was present at the scene of the confrontation, disagrees with Hassan-Nahoum’s qualification of the incident as a “brawl”.
“The only thing that happened [...] is that the community was attacked by thugs, by people who received the money to attack community members,” he told The New Arab.
Hagop Djernazian is the co-founder of SaveTheArQ, a group of activists formed in the aftermath of the initial protests against the controversial land deal.
Israeli journalist Nir Hasson, who has been recently reporting on the deal for Haaretz, wrote in a post on X that “the masked ones are probably Palestinians from East Jerusalem”, before issuing a correction later that “they are Arabs from the North or the centre, not Jerusalemites.”
The contradicting information about the identity of the masked men and their motives continued to swirl on social media later that day, leading some to speculate that the attackers had religious motivations.
The police investigation
TNA contacted over email and WhatsApp Master Sgt. Elsdune, the Israeli police foreign press spokesperson, to ask whether the police had opened an investigation into Danny Rothman and George Warwar, as requested by the Armenian Patriarchate. No reply has been received in time for publication.
After being arrested, the masked men were taken to the Merhav David police station, which is located on the Armenian Patriarchate street, and watches over the Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters of the Old City in Jerusalem.
Contrary to initial reports describing the confrontation as a 'brawl' between 'some Arab Muslim men and some men from the Armenian community', court documents obtained by The New Arab Investigative Unit show that Xana Gardens had actually hired the masked assailants.
TNA also contacted police Chief Avi Cohen from the Merhav David station over email, to ask how many men were arrested, and whether the police were behind the claim that “Arab Muslims” were involved in the incident in the Armenian Quarter. No response has been received in time for publication.
TNA obtained a copy of the court order, issued on 29 December 2023, which set the bail conditions for the arrested men. Only eleven individuals, out of the alleged 30 who attacked the quarter, were listed in it as defendants.
The court order provides additional details on the relation between the assailants and Xana Gardens.
“There is no dispute that all the detainees here are employees of the Xana Gardens company, which is the lessee of the property where they were asked to dismantle the fence,” the lawyer for the defendants was quoted saying. “No one updated them regarding a dispute or lawsuit, they were just told to come from the North, release the fence and return,” he added.
The state prosecutor, also present at the court hearing, had a different view. According to him, the vehicles of the masked men contained “batons, a quantity of pepper spray, knives, an electric saw”. The group had also brought a dog, which they claimed they had taken for a walk with them.
As part of the conditions for their release, the masked men were excluded from visiting Jerusalem for 45 days, after the state prosecutor explained that “[they] are not related to here [i.e. Jerusalem], they are from the North, it is a two and a half hour drive, they have never been to Jerusalem”.
Finally, the police were required to return the money seized from the eleven individuals, which they suspected was disbursed as payment by Xana Gardens.
Who can stop the provocations?
TNA asked Deputy Mayor Hassan-Nahoum whether the city of Jerusalem had taken any actions to prevent further violence. She said that “the police arrested some of the men who had started the altercation and are awaiting prosecution and trail [sic]. Jerusalem will not tolerate violent crime from anyone in the city. [...] Our holy sites, mosques and churches [are] always well protected by police and camera surveillance.”
Camera surveillance has so far failed to protect Jerusalem’s Armenian Christians from violent attacks, ranging from physical assault to being spat on. Many of these incidents, though caught on camera, are rarely prosecuted.
TNA asked Hagop Djernazian, the Armenian activist, if he was aware of any action taken by the city of Jerusalem to help prosecute criminal activity in the Armenian Quarter. He said: “I don't know any steps that were taken or will be taken by the Jerusalem municipality or the authorities to prevent these attacks”.
“The authorities should do everything necessary to prevent and to make sure that communities - not only the Armenian community, and not only the Armenian Quarter - will be a safe place to live,” Djernazian added.
Less than a week after speaking to TNA, on 23 January, according to Armenian activists, one of George Warwar’s “henchmen” reportedly assaulted Djernazian himself, in the presence of Israeli police. According to the activists, the assailant has been arrested.
Jerusalem-based Jessica Buxbaum contributed to this article.
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