Armenians in Jerusalem fight back against armed settlers, saying, “We won’t leave.”

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The oldest Armenian diaspora community in the world is under danger due to a contentious real estate proposal. However, they won’t budge.

Old City, occupied East Jerusalem – Eighty-year-old professional photographer Garo Nalbandian joined a community sit-in in the Cows’ Garden neighborhood with his trusty camera, of course, after learning that settlers had returned to bulldoze in a section of the parking lot near his house in the Armenian Quarter.

A resolute Nalbandian snapped pictures of Armenians on one side of the homemade roadblock and Israeli police and hired security on the other, saying sternly, “We won’t leave.”

The head of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem declared on October 26 that the once-secret 2021 land leasing agreement with a real estate firm that is suspected of having ties to settlement interests will be canceled.

Since then, contractors, armed settlers, and bulldozers have been dispatched by Xana Gardens officials to acquire the land, which comprises the parking lot and the properties of the Armenian Church as well as the residences of Nalbandian and four other families.

The Armenian Quarter, which makes about 14% of Jerusalem’s Old City’s southwest quadrant, is home to the majority of the 1,600-year-old Armenian population.

You are familiar with every neighbor. I knock on their door at one in the morning if I haven’t had milk. Leader of the present push to revoke the land transaction Setrag Balian, 26, stated, “If I don’t have bread, I call my friend.”

“We look out for each other’s families and children.”

The population of this Armenian community, which is the oldest in the world, has decreased during the past century, from roughly 27,000 to about 1,000.

But every time there is an effort at destruction, the locals quickly mobilize in large numbers to obstruct bulldozers and resist threats of arrest and armed intimidation.

Under the terms of the agreement, Nalbandian’s family might lose the house they have resided in since 1969. Hrout, Garo’s spouse, whose family has lived in Jerusalem since the eighth or ninth century, shares her lovely recollections of the decades she spent being engaged, getting married, and raising their children in their small one-story home.

She remarked, “Everywhere we walk, it feels like we are in Armenia.” “The Armenians are like a big family to us.” It’s really difficult to end up homeless after all these years.

Beautiful pictures that Garo has shot of streets and towns all throughout the world, from Alexandria to Athens, decorate his studio in Wadi al-Joz. However, Garo said, “Our gorgeous Armenian Quarter is unlike anywhere else.” “It needs to be protected,”

A contentious agreement

When an Israeli business started building on the same parking space in 2019, the neighborhood became suspicious of Israeli settlement goals in the Cows’ Garden. The Jerusalem mayor, Moshe Lion, oddly attended the parking lot’s April 2021 inauguration, which was garlanded with enough Israeli flags to draw attention, despite the patriarchate’s declaration at the time that the property would only be renovated.

In July of that year, an agreement was reached between the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which serves as the de facto landowner, largest employer, and spiritual head of the community, and Xana Gardens, a business founded in the same month under the direction of Australian-Israeli financier Danny Rothman.

Despite lingering rumors, church authorities denied any knowledge of the terms or the existence of the agreement to the community for two years. Witnesses indicate that on April 1 of this year, Rothman, who is also listed in court records as Danny Kaufman and Danny Rubenstein, entered the Cows’ Garden parking lot with security, broke surveillance cameras, and fired patriarchate guards, all while declaring his takeover.

Setrag Balian and 23-year-old Hagop Djernazian led the younger generation of Armenians in opposing the land acquisition as years of rumors and suspicions about the agreement came to light. Working for his family’s pottery company, Balian joined Hebrew University student Djernazian in months-long protests outside the offices of Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian.

Along with becoming the leader of the Armenian Scouts, Djernazian stated, “I see myself creating my future here.” “This is where I live, work, and study. And I intend to stay here for the foreseeable future. The agreement jeopardizes our ability to stay here.

The agreement was eventually made public in July of this year thanks to a report published by a global group of Armenian attorneys.

In order to construct a five-star hotel, the patriarchate decided to lease the Cows’ Garden to Xana Gardens for 49 years, with the option to extend for an additional 49.

The agreement included a minimum of 11,500 square meters (123,785 square feet), and only Xana Gardens could revoke it. However, Xana might also include “adjacent properties in the project.”

According to the acquisition report, Danny Rothman’s May proposal for the hotel called for 14,500 square meters, not 11,500, with a “target area” of 16,000 square meters (172,222 square feet). This sector would make up 13% of the Armenian Quarter overall.

Xana Gardens would only have to pay $300,000 a year in rent for this vast tract of highly sought-after land on contentious Mount Zion.

Born and reared in the Armenian fourth, 40-year-old restaurant owner Miran Krikorian claims he pays over a fourth of that amount for the mere 30 square meters (323 square feet) he rents for his little eatery in the Christian Quarter.

Krikorian remarked, “Either this deal was passed by someone using money obtained illegally, or our people are so ignorant that they don’t know what prices are in this country.”

Increasing dangers and pressure

In addition to threats that church officials were reportedly making against anyone who protested, freshly hired security guards from Xana Gardens threatened for months to forbid community members from accessing the parking lot if they joined the demonstrations. However, the community remained unyielding.

As a result of the church’s perceived danger to the status quo in the Old City and worries that stakeholders had not been engaged, pressure to revoke the agreement intensified when Jordan and the Palestinian Authority withdrew their recognition of Patriarch Manougian in May. The three political entities that grant legitimacy to the patriarchs in Jerusalem are the PA, Jordan, and Israel. A request for comment was not answered by the patriarchate.

The brother of Setrag, Kegham Balian, who has written on the subject for Armenian news organizations, stated that many members of the younger generation “had to learn through this ordeal why it’s important to stay in Jerusalem and why presence matters.”

The division among the Armenian community over the matter was resolved when Manougian decided to renounce the agreement on October 26. However, Israeli heavy machinery tried to start demolition at the contested location later that same day.

Armenians flocked to the Cows’ Garden, where they stood in front of equipment that was demolishing the wall and pavement that divided the communal parking lot from the patriarchate parking lot.

On November 5, a full ten days later, Rothman and other Xana Gardens representatives came again. They arrived this time with perhaps fifteen settlers, many of them were carrying weapons and guiding dogs on leashes.

They reportedly informed the local Armenians, “This is our land.” “Go now.”

The Armenians, however, would not go. For hours, there was a tense confrontation as more settlers came and more Armenians joined, finally overpowering the armed settlers.

People in the village said that some of the settlers made an effort to agitate them. One of them warned them, “You’re all goons, and you will die when the Messiah comes.”

“One by one, I will win you over!” He, according to reports, was George Warwar, a Christian Arab from Jaffa who had been the ground face of Xana Gardens in the months before the incident.

For most people in the neighborhood, this was their first meeting with Rothman, who has declined to engage with the media when contacted by them. Setrag Balian claims that during the confrontation, Rothman—who often resides abroad—told police that the community wanted to void the agreement because he is Jewish.

Setrag Balian recounted saying Rothman that day, “It’s because now you’re bringing armed settlers and showing the true face of your company.” “It’s because the patriarchate will not benefit from this arrangement.”

He went on, “We have lived with our Jewish Quarter neighbors for 50 years without any significant incidents.”

After many hours, Rothman and his party were forced to leave because of their nonviolent protest.

Kegham Balian observed, “You could tell Danny Rothman wasn’t expecting the events to unfold like they did that day just by the look on his face.”

“It empowered us instead of frightening us.”

A major demand from protestors is that the church give more openness on the management of communal lands and affairs, and negotiations are underway to achieve this goal.

Residents of Xana Gardens claim that the tactics are changing to open armed conflict as a result of the world’s attention being drawn to the Gaza war and the division over the land deal.

Regarding the armed threats, Setrag Balian stated, “They thought it would scare us.” However, it energized us rather than frightening us. We have never been more unified.

This month, Manougian—whom Armenians have frequently criticized for lacking leadership—has participated in standoffs. In a statement released on November 16, the Armenian Patriarchate denounced the 2021 deal as being “tainted with false representation, undue influence, and unlawful benefits” and called the situation “possibly the greatest existential threat of its 16-century history.”

The Cows’ Garden, which makes up a large portion of the Armenian Quarter outside the Armenian Convent, is a private area that was originally intended for clergy but is now home to many Armenians who moved there approximately a century ago in the wake of the Armenian Genocide. Armenians fear that if they lose this area, their small, close-knit community will not survive.

A long-term lease on the valuable property would complete a pathway for Jewish worshippers to cross the Old City from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter without having to cross Christian properties. This would follow the previous purchases of the New Imperial Hotel and Petra Hotel along that route, which is seen as crucial to Israeli settler plans.

Armenians have been working in turns at the Cows’ Garden, where two bulldozers are stationed, ever since Rothman and the settlers engaged in their first violent altercation.

On November 12 and 13, contractors employed by Xana Gardens made an early morning attempt to bulldoze the area. The neighborhood came together both times, blocking the passage of a bulldozer on the 13 and erecting a metal barricade on the 12.

At the request of movement leaders like Balian and Djernazian, the community has remained peaceful throughout the altercations.

The community is unwavering despite the company’s ongoing attempts at demolition, which include an incident on November 15 in which Palestinians hired by Xana Gardens to tear down the barricade departed when they realized they had been recruited by settlers.

Community members said that police threatened to arrest Armenians during the standoffs, and that some of them have already been detained for minor offenses like screaming. Police forbade them from going back to the area even after they were freed that same day.

Police have made an effort to put an end to the bulldozing, but they haven’t been successful thus far since Xana Gardens can’t provide the necessary licenses. This is because stakeholders anticipate that the land sale will go to court to be decided.

The Cows’ Garden is now the nighttime sleeping place for a revolving group of Armenians, and volunteers are given food, tea, sofas, and even a tent for round-the-clock security by the locals.

With tears in his eyes, Krikorian remarked of his four-year-old son, “This has to do with the future of my kid.”

“If I consider all that my child would lose, such as his friends and this town,… That’s how I grew up, and I want him to know the same things.

“I’m going to lose it for him later if I don’t do something right now.”

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