‘We Go Back 800 Years’: Palestinian Fights Settler NGO’s Takeover of Jerusalem Hotel
Posted on March. 3. 2022
Ateret Cohanim set to evict residents after court approves its
purchase of buildings in Old City’s central plaza. 75-year-old Abu-Walid
Dajani plans to fight it.
BY MIHRAN KALAYDJIAN
ABU-WALID DAJANI, 75, is embarking on what he calls the battle of his
life: an effort to prevent the Imperial Hotel from being closed down
and taken over by the Ateret Cohanim organization that runs a yeshiva
and settles Jews in the Old City and East Jerusalem.
The walls of
the Old City of Jerusalem are visible through the window of Dajani’s
office in the Imperial, seeming almost close enough to touch. The office
walls bear pictures of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and
a young Jordanian King Hussein, together with family pictures going
back a century. The hotel is located in a vast, grand building on Omar
Ibn al-Khattab Square, by the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.
will determine the fate of the Old City’s central plaza, says Dajani
and many others. “This is the heart of Jerusalem,” he says. “I have to
prepare myself for battle. My family has been living in Jerusalem for
800 years. That’s pages of history, and I want my name to be there. I
will never give up. I am loyal and if I die, I will die loyal and
A month ago, the [Israeli] Supreme Court ruled in favor
of Ateret Cohanim, which purchased the Imperial Hotel from the Greek
Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem 15 years ago. The court rejected the
Patriarchate’s claim that the deal was illegal. Ateret Cohanim’s legal
victory made it the owner of two huge buildings in al-Khattab Square:
the Imperial and the Petra hotels.
The last obstacle preventing
the settler organization from taking possession of the buildings was
evicting the residents, who also run the two hotels. Thus, Dajani found
himself on the front line in the battle against it. Ateret Cohanim
didn’t dawdle. Within days of the court ruling, Dajani was served with
two lawsuits, both on behalf of Richard Marketing Corp.—a shell company
registered in the Virgin Islands, which was the legal entity through
which Ateret Cohanim bought the hotel.
The first suit demanded
the premises be evacuated. “To hand over the Imperial Hotel free of any
person or object,” the lawsuit states. The second suit demanded that
Dajani pay Ateret Cohanim 10 million shekels ($2.8 million) in rent from
2005, when its agreement with the Patriarchate was signed. That’s more
than double the amount
Ateret Cohanim paid—$1.25 million—to buy the whole building with its 45 rooms, hotels and hallways.
has the status of a protected tenant in the hotel, and evicting a
protected tenant is usually a long and arduous legal process, yet even
he seems to realize he doesn’t stand much chance of beating Ateret
Cohanim. “I’m not religious but I do believe in God and sometimes
miracles are needed,” he says. He’s placing his hopes on international
pressure on the government to prevent his eviction.
has received support, albeit mainly symbolic, from the leaders of the
Christian communities in Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch
Theophilos III and other church leaders visited the hotel and issued a
forceful statement against the eviction.
“We cannot remain silent
while access to our holy sites is threatened and the hope of a lasting
peace is diminished. As a community of justice, we demand that the rule
of law is upheld, and stand united against any attempt to take church
properties by unlawful measures or to forcefully evict innocent
tenants,” the statement read.
“We warn against any such attempt,
and we shall not fear to use all legitimate means to oppose and block
this from occurring. We remain impassioned guardians of the status quo
and will ensure that people of all faiths can flourish and thrive within
the walls of this city.”
The patriarch’s inner circles are
hinting that despite the Supreme Court ruling, they intend to take
further legal action, and still have some cards up their sleeves.
THE ROYAL FAMILY
Imperial Hotel was built in the 19th century by the Greek Orthodox
Church to shelter pilgrims. It was the grandest hotel in Jerusalem in
its day. It featured in photographs taken during the visit of Germany’s
Kaiser Wilhelm II to the city in 1898, and in the ceremony marking the
surrender to British General Edmund Allenby in December 1917 by the
Turkish forces that occupied Jerusalem.
The hotel’s management
changed several times during the first half of the 20th century but
always remained under the ownership of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate,
which viewed it as a strategic asset in the city. In July 1948, during
Israel’s War of Independence, Dajani’s father Mohammed Taher Daoudi
Dajani signed an agreement to rent the building and relaunched it as the
The Dajanis are considered part of the
Palestinian elite in Jerusalem; the men of the family have always played
key roles in the city’s economy and politics. “I remember when I was
six, I came to visit my father at this office and he gave me lunch money
to buy a sandwich,” Dajani recalls. “My childhood was here, in this
building. In 1962, I came to tell my father that I got a scholarship to
study hotel management in
Switzerland. He threw me out because he
wanted me to be a doctor or architect. I left with tears in my eyes,
but I went to Switzerland anyway.”
After his studies Dajani took a
job at the hotel and also founded the tourism school at Bethlehem
University in 1973. He headed the coordination committee on tourism
during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the 1990s.
hotel has been at the center of a public and legal struggle since 2005.
The news of its sale to Ateret Cohanim provoked an uproar in the Greek
Orthodox Patriarchate, leading to the unprecedented dismissal of the
patriarch at the time, Irineos. In response, Irineos secluded himself in
a tiny apartment in the Patriarchate building that he hardly ever
leaves—although, in recent weeks, he’s been hospitalized.
Patriarchate has always denied the deal, claiming in court that the
transaction was fraudulent and key people in the church had been bribed.
The signatory on the paperwork had been the Patriarchate’s financial
adviser, Nikos Papadimas, who had allegedly been paid by Ateret Cohanim
to promote the deal and fled the country immediately after sealing the
During the trial, a recording surfaced revealing a
conversation between Papadimas and the head of Ateret Cohanim, Mati Dan,
in which Dan confirmed a financial arrangement between the association
and Papadimas. It later transpired that Ateret Cohanim had paid
Papadimas $10,000 in cash some years after the transaction. The
Patriarchate’s attorneys also stressed that Dan didn’t come to court to
The Jerusalem District Court raised questions
about the transaction, but ultimately approved it. Recently the Supreme
Court did so, too. Jerusalem District Court Judge Gila Canfy Steinitz
and the Supreme Court justices all mentioned their discomfort with Dan’s
refusal to testify, but they accepted Ateret Cohanim’s position that
the recording and other evidence did not prove corruption had taken
Steinitz accepted the organization’s view that the tape
was inadmissible as evidence because nobody testified about its
existence in court, and it might have been edited. Touching on the money
paid to Papadimas, Ateret Cohanim said it was regular assistance the
organization provided to people with whom it worked, and who had
encountered financial difficulties.
In the Palestinian street and
within the church, there are complaints about how the church handled
its legal battle, but Dajani stresses that he has no complaints against
the Patriarch, whose picture greets visitors at the entrance to the
“If we were in America I could sue them for millions,
but things work differently here,” Dajani says. “I have no doubt he’ll
stand by me. We are in the same boat, and he knows it.”
the Supreme Court ruling, Dajani has been consulting with lawyers, and
also wrote a plea to Jordan’s King Abdullah, published in the al-Quds
newspaper, to support the struggle.
He hopes to raise funds from
the public for the fight against his eviction, stressing that if Ateret
Cohanim wins, it could be the start of a domino effect. “There are a lot
of stores here. If they go from store to store, from person to person,
some won’t be able to take the pressure,” Dajani says. “My children and I
are standing by each other and we’re strong, but I’m afraid the other
tenants will leave.”
The entrance to the Latin Patriarchate of
Jerusalem is at one end of the hotel and the entrance to the Greek
Orthodox Patriarchate is at the other. “Soon they’ll have to ask for
permission to enter their own property. Ateret Cohanim is disrupting
life for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it must be stopped,” says
In recent years he received several “direct and indirect”
offers to voluntarily leave the hotel in exchange for a generous
payment. “I could take the money but then I’d need ten sleeping pills to
fall asleep at night, while today I only need two,” he says. “Or I
could take the money and have a heart attack and die. If I take it, the
family’s honor has no future. The Dajani name has no future.”
lawyer representing Ateret Cohanim, Avraham Moshe Segal, presented an
assessment of the property showing that the demand that Dajani
retroactively pay 10 million shekels in rent is reasonable, and even on
the low side, compared to what is accepted in the hotel industry.
to the property assessment, annual rent should be 10 percent of the
hotel’s price upon its acquisition 14 years ago, though it could have
also been calculated based on its present value, which is much higher.
Kalaydjian is born and raised in Jerusalem, consummate leader,
activist. He is the former board member on the Armenian Young Men’s
Society, a key liaison for the Armenians in Jerusalem and Diaspora.