Armenians in Palestine face uncertain future

The community is under threat, residents say, amid problems with Israeli policy and economic malaise.

Armenians in Jerusalem
Church officials say the number of Armenians in Palestine has dropped from about 15,000 in 1948 to 4,500 today [Emily Mulder/Al Jazeera]

As Armenians in Palestine mark 100 years since their ancestors fled Anatolia during the 1915 massacre in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, the community faces more threats to its survival than ever before.

Similar to other Palestinians, Armenians report growing pressure amid the government-sponsored “Judaisation of Jerusalem,” while harassment of clergymen by Jewish hard-liners has been reported in the streets of the Armenian Quarter.

These are only the most visible of the challenges facing the community, which church officials say has declined from a peak of around 15,000 in 1948, to 4,500 today. Israeli discrimination, economic decline and political insecurity have taken a toll on Armenians, encouraging emigration.

A century after the community was nearly annihilated, Armenian Palestinians today say they feel deeply at home in the Holy Land, but fear how much longer they will be able to hold on.

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Among the most important signs of Armenian Palestinian identity is the tiny Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, where Armenians have lived since the 4th century. Despite the expansion of Jewish-only settlements in every other part of the city, Armenians have managed to limit such construction in their neighbourhood.

“Israel pushes the issue of the Armenian Quarter in every round of negotiations, and they’re trying to get in bit by bit,” Kevork Hintlian, a historian and spokesperson for the Armenian Church in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera, referring to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over a potential peace agreement. The Armenian Quarter is a significant issue in the talks, covering about one-sixth of the Old City. “The battle here is house by house,” Hintlian noted.

We are not the objectives of the Israelis, but we occupy a huge chunk of Jerusalem. The fact that we're here is an obstacle for them, but we've been here for 1,600 years and we're not going anywhere.

by Kevork Hintlian, church historian

Hintlian said Israel has been chipping away at the Quarter, constructing a police station nearby and trying to negotiate for access to local buildings.

“We are not the objectives of the Israelis, but we occupy a huge chunk of Jerusalem. The fact that we’re here is an obstacle for them, but we’ve been here for 1,600 years and we’re not going anywhere.”

Hintlian’s comments belie the fact that the community is in precipitous decline. Church officials say two-thirds of local Armenians were forced to flee in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. Others left when Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, while still others emigrated during the two Intifadas. Today, the problems facing the community are primarily a mixture of Israeli policy and economic malaise.

“I don’t think in the last 1,400 years we’ve ever confronted problems as big as those we are facing today,” Benny Shohmelian, an Armenian resident of Jerusalem who owns a hotel near Bethlehem, told Al Jazeera. “The economic situation is the biggest challenge facing us today. Every family is struggling to survive on their own.”

Shohmelian said many are unable to come back because of Israel’s “centre of life” policy, which requires Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to prove that the majority of their life activities take place in the city and revokes their right to live there if they do not for seven years in a row. Young Palestinians who study and take jobs abroad often find themselves in exile if they fail to return.

The policy is part of the broader “Judaisation of Jerusalem” envisioned by Israeli authorities, which calls for a constant Jewish majority of 70 percent. Authorities build subsidised housing exclusively for Jews across the city and in the neighbouring West Bank, while Palestinians face “insurmountable barriers” in trying to get construction permits, according to the US State Department.

Armenians in Jerusalem find themselves caught in the same situation as their Arab neighbours, denied access to housing, education, and other social services. Yet, despite all they share with other Palestinians, Armenians are rarely given a voice due to their seemingly marginal identity; indeed, the community is so small that it is rarely spoken of, in Palestinian or foreign press, outside of the context of the Armenian massacre or Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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The Armenian community in Ramallah is so small it could easily be missed. Living far from the Armenian Quarter and the cohesion it offers, Armenians here do not necessarily feel strong ties to their shared Armenian past. While the 1915 massacre was integral to their collective memory, residents told Al Jazeera, the events of the last six decades loom larger.

“Don’t ask me about the massacres that happened 100 years ago,” Annie Guluzian said when asked about her experiences as an Armenian Palestinian. “I won’t open [up about] those topics. Because if I do, I will start talking about my brother who was martyred by the Israelis in the [second] Intifada.”

The toll of the Israeli occupation in Palestine is what defines her life today, Guluzian added.

While every resident Al Jazeera spoke with affirmed the importance of the quest for recognition of what happened in 1915, there was a palpable exhaustion with a century-long crusade that has produced few clear results.

“I don’t need documents to prove my uncle was axed to death. Seventy members of my family were killed, and I know that,” Hintlian said. “In a way, this cause has destroyed our lives. One hundred years, and we have not reached anywhere.”

Despite this, residents stress the need to remember the tragedy of 1915, which is described by Armenians as a “genocide”, a label Turkey rejects. “The more Turkey refuses to recognise, the more we hold onto this cause,” Shohmelian said. “It has become a political issue and a source of anger.”

Source: Al Jazeera