A Greek Orthodox priest watches pilgrims roam around the ancient church of nativity, where many Christians believe Jesus was born..
(photo credit: DOV LIEBER)
The Greek Orthodox Church last week sold 50 hectares of land in central Jerusalem – some 124 acres containing more than 1,000 housing units in numerous buildings – to an anonymous group of investors, spurring fears of a hostile takeover.
For many years, the land was leased to the Jewish National Fund in agreements that are about to expire, leaving the residents’ future rights in limbo.
It remains unclear which homes will be affected.
MKs Rachel Azaria and Akram Hasson of Kulanu, Yossi Yonah of Zionist Union, Mickey Levy of Yesh Atid and Uri Maklev of United Torah Judaism are scheduled to discuss the matter during a Knesset meeting on Wednesday.
According to Azaria, the residents were aware the land was leased by JNF but were led to believe it would remain so for many years to come.
“The land was leased by the church to JNF in the 1950s for 99 years,” she said. “Buildings were constructed on it in which people have been living for decades.
The residents knew that the agreements would expire within a certain time, but they assumed that the lease to JNF would be extended for a further period.”
Azaria noted, however, that a few months ago the Jerusalemites Party on the city council determined that private developers received a 200-year lease on some of the land in 2011, and that an additional investor group signed a similar agreement one year ago.
“Following this, the city council received a flood of inquiries from residents of the area who did not know what the future held for them,” she said. “Last week, a large gathering of the residents was held by the Jerusalemites Party and addressed by council member Itai Gutler and architect Yehuda Greenfield. The residents are demanding to know who among them is affected by the agreement between the church and the developers and who is not, what the agreements say, and what they mean for them.”
Azaria said the tenants who purchased units in the buildings in the 1950s were made aware that the land was owned by the church, but they dealt directly with the JNF.
“We are talking about people who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades and knew that they were dealing with JNF,” she said. “It’s not a matter of one building or a few families, but very large and prestigious neighborhoods in the heart of Jerusalem. Hundreds of residents who assumed that the lease from the church would be extended never imagined that they would find themselves having to deal with private developers who will suddenly hold the land when the lease agreements expire.”
Azaria added: “In such a situation, they are liable to find themselves with nothing.”
To avert a full-blown housing crisis, Azaria said she requested an early debate in the Knesset in conjunction with a petition that the residents brought against the Jerusalem Municipality to obtain information that is currently being withheld.
“The second demand is that someone should take the matter in hand and conduct negotiations with the developers on behalf of the residents, rather than each apartment owner having to deal with the developers themselves,” Azaria said. “This is a major event concerning a substantial part of Jerusalem and one that will affect its character.”
Noting that the unknown developers, in exchange for extending the lease, could ask for additional building rights and build on open areas, Azaria said the government must oversee all elements of the transfer to ensure the residents’ rights.
“It is important that the state should intervene on the matter,” she said. “The value of the residents’ apartments is constantly falling, even in neighborhoods like Rehavia. Anyone who buys an apartment in these areas now is taking a risk, and that affects the value of the properties.”
The Jerusalem Municipality said in a statement that it was actively working with all parties involved in the matter.
“In a meeting with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Mayor Nir Barkat described dealing with this matter and [prioritizing] it at the highest level of importance,” the statement said. “Later, a meeting took place in the office of the director-general of the municipality, attended by representatives of JNF, the Justice Ministry and others, and it was decided that there should be further joint action by all the bodies involved in order to put an end to the residents’ uncertainty and to ensure continuation of the lease.”
The municipality statement continued: “All state bodies are taking coordinated action via several channels, and the officials of the church are also expected to cooperate on the matter.”