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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 March 2005, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Church land deal enrages Palestinians

By James Reynolds
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos I [left]
The Patriarch has faced calls for his resignation
Inside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, there is a battle going on.

It involves a secret investor, a man gone into hiding, an embarrassed Patriarch and the future of Jerusalem.

The fight centres on a large, ramshackle Palestinian hotel inside the Christian Arab Quarter.

It is built on a site owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, one of the largest private landowners in this region. The hotel - the Imperial - is run by Abu Walid Dajani.

A few days ago he got a phone call from an Israeli newspaper. Mr Dajani was told that the land under his hotel had just been sold to an unknown Israeli investor.

And in this part of town, that matters.

Palestinian anger

For the Palestinians, selling a plot of Jerusalem land to Israel means losing a piece of their future capital.

Palestinians protesters shout at the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irineos outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
There have been angry demonstrations at news of the sale
"The first thing that came up to my mind," Mr Dajani said, "is that Jerusalem has been raped and rape is a crime."

Palestinians have reacted angrily to the news.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, crowds have demonstrated against the sale of the land.

The Greek Orthodox Church is now trying to pick its way through the mess.

A warrant is out for the arrest of the employee who carried out the sale, but he has gone into hiding.

The Church Patriarch, Irineos I, is under pressure to resign. He insists that the transaction does not count, but the courts may have to work that one out for him.

'Real estate rush'

The apparent Israeli purchase of the Imperial Hotel and other buildings is good news for Israel's nationalist Homeland party.

It's a real estate rush and who is going to get more - the Palestinians or the Jews?
Homeland party member
They have been moving Jewish families into Arab East Jerusalem for several years.

They have a simple aim: To acquire enough buildings in key parts of east Jerusalem so that Israel can keep the entire city forever.

"When we take those [buildings] away from the Palestinians we're saying no - those footholds and strongholds are not going to be in your hands forever and ever," Homeland party member Uri Bank said.

"We're taking them away and it's a chess match. It's a real estate rush and who is going to get more - the Palestinians or the Jews?"

No-one quite knows what happens now. It is certainly hard to tell when the seller has disappeared and the buyer has yet to come forward.

Desperate wait

Meanwhile, Abu Walid Dajani is waiting to find out whether he will be evicted from his hotel or whether the sale will be made void.

For now, he sits in his office next to the lobby, from where he has a good view of everyone coming up the steps.

"What happens if one day up these stairs the new owners come and say 'Thank you very much, but it's time to go'?" I asked him.

Tears filled his eyes.

"The only thing that I say is over my dead body," he said.

"That's all."


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