‘East Side’: Netflix spotlights Jerusalem's dark real estate underbelly

East Side has settlers, vengeful Palestinians, collaborators at the mercy of the Shin Bet, and Greek Orthodox Church leaders – some greedy, some trying to maintain independence.

 ‘EAST SIDE’ scene, episode 1. (photo credit: NETFLIX)
‘EAST SIDE’ scene, episode 1.
(photo credit: NETFLIX)

Netflix’s new drama series East Side, one of KAN broadcasting corporation’s latest offerings, showcases excellent actors, rhythmic direction, an increasingly complicated plot and, above all, Jerusalem in all its beauty, exclusion, mysteries and dark corners, both physically and politically. 

The show provides Jerusalem residents, as well as those who rarely visit the nation’s capital, a glimpse into the complexity of the city from the safe threshold of a TV screen. 

East Side is populated with settlers, vengeful Palestinians, collaborators at the mercy of Shin Bet operatives, as well as Greek Orthodox Church leaders – some of whom are greedy, and others who are trying to maintain their independence.

The story outline is simple. A former Shin Bet member Momi (portrayed by Yehuda Levy) who has kept ties with the security agency and with Palestinians he handled in the past, begins to purchase land and properties in Jerusalem’s Old City on behalf of a settler organization. Momi’s motivation is not ideological; he needs to make a lot of money to ensure a future for his only daughter, Maya, who is on the autistic spectrum.

Does the plot with its twists and turns reflect the reality of Jerusalem behind the scenes?

 PETRA HOTEL (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
PETRA HOTEL (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Does Netflix accurately depict the behind-the-scenes reality of Jerusalem and its real estate?

Ami Meitav, a tour guide specializing in the Old City and author of the book One Square Kilometer , who worked as a consultant to the creators of the series, considers that while East Side is well made, it gives the city a bad rap.

As a Jerusalemite who is attached to and loves the city, Meitav has reservations about some of the aspects portrayed.

“What is the idea of showing the beauty of Jerusalem in the context of such negative events and situations? Are there no stories related to the city – over thousands of years – that could have been used to produce a series or a film without this context?”

For Meitav, this negativity is a real “shame.”

“Everyone, every side featured [in East Side] comes out of the series badly, and Jerusalem is identified, in the eyes of someone who doesn’t live in it and does not really know it, as a city that has mostly or only dark deeds.”

The main plot revolves around the real struggle for control of properties and land in the Old City. Jewish organizations want to settle as many areas as possible with Jewish families. This struggle has been ongoing since the 1980s.

It started with the restoration of the Jewish Quarter.

The 1967 Six Day War that enabled the reunification of the old and new cities aroused the desire of many to return and settle as many Jews as possible within the Old City walls. Then, over the years, many sought to encourage Jewish families to settle in other areas of the Old City, as well as in the surrounding neighborhoods such as Silwan.

But is the quest to purchase as many properties as possible in the Old City really as underhanded as it is presented in the series?

Does the goal of acquiring Jewish ownership of as many properties as possible in the east part of the city – mainly inside the Old City walls – really require exerting personal pressure on Palestinians torn between the threat of execution by representatives of the Palestinian Authority and their desire to earn good money? 

And what about the cases, also featured in the series, of Palestinians who, due to financial or social difficulties, are forced to collaborate with the buyers’ associations’ agents?

Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, a right-wing activist and politician and founder of the Israel Land Foundation, an expert in Jewish settlement issues, says that except for two cases involving the Greek Orthodox Church, the rest of the details do not reflect the reality that he confronts every day. 

“Palestinians living in the east of the city, and especially the Old City, want to sell like anybody else anywhere. They need the money because they want to pay debts or for any other reason,” King says.

According to King, there is no difficulty in purchasing land or property in the Old City, since there is a desire to sell. Brokers locate potential sellers, connect with Jewish organizations and promote the transactions.

“There is actually no problem. There is no need to threaten or blackmail Palestinians in order to purchase land or property from them,” he says while setting up a meeting with a potential seller over WhatsApp.

“Brokers get in touch with us without informing the property owners because of the ban on selling to Jews. The owners are satisfied that they are getting a good deal. Sometimes they find out after the transaction who the buyers are, but most of the time they don’t find out until they are already long gone. It is the brokers who contact us and promote  the deals without the owner knowing that their property is being sold to Jews.”

“Actually,” says King, “there are more offers than we can respond to. There’s no problem getting a property, it’s just a question of having enough money to make the deals happen.”

And what about the East Side depiction of Jewish brokers extorting Palestinian property owners to make them sell?

King says simply, “There is no such thing.”

He explains: “There are those who are interested in selling, we are interested in buying, and there are those who help to carry out the transaction. It’s just a question of how much money is available.”

Most purchases are acquired from Muslim Palestinians. Their land or property is generally located in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, but it can also be situated in other parts of the Old City. 

Only a tiny minority of these transactions are concluded with Christians because most Christian communities in the Old City do not own private property. They rent their homes from the various churches, which are opposed to selling.

One of two exceptions was approved by the Jerusalem Court in June 2020 after a 16-year legal battle. The sale to a Jewish settler group of the New Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hotel – situated inside the Jaffa Gate and belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church – was signed in 2004, but the validity of the sale was challenged. The court finally ruled that the organization Ateret Cohanim had a valid contract for the purchase of the property.

The sale originally sparked strong opposition within the Greek Church and led to the unprecedented removal of the church patriarch at the time, Irineos I.

The second, and only other case so far, was the recent acquisition of a section of the Armenian Quarter parking lot, bought by Australian-Israeli businessman David Rothman, who acquired a plot inside the quarter and plans to turn the parking lot and limestone fortress of Armenian apartments and shops into an ultra-luxury hotel.

As a result of allowing this sale, the priest who coordinated the deal, Baret Yeretsian, was deposed, assaulted by a mob of angry young Armenians, and had to find refuge in California.❖