Tycoon property war erupts in Jerusalem

By Anshel Pfeffer, January 13, 2011
The Shepherd Hotel in the east Jerusalem was demolished on Sunday to make way for a new Israeli enclave

The Shepherd Hotel in the east Jerusalem was demolished on Sunday to make way for a new Israeli enclave

Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian millionaires are trying to go beyond politics and decide the future of east Jerusalem using their money and business acumen to wage real-estate battles against each other.

This week the demolition of the Shepherd's Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah, owned by the settlers' patron, American millionaire Irwin Moskowitz, made headlines around the world.

But another tug-of-war has been fought behind the scenes over a planned Jewish neighbourhood in east Jerusalem.

The richest man in the Palestinian Authority, Bashar Al-Masri, revealed last week in an interview with the Al-Arabiyah Channel that he was about to buy up Digal, a failing investment company that has among its holdings a building project across the Green Line - the Nof Zion housing complex

But after Mr Al-Masri's intentions went public, a new champion entered the fray: Jerusalem supermarket tycoon and city council member Rami Levi.

Over the weekend, Mr Levi put together a group of anonymous Jewish investors from around the world.

On Tuesday, together with buyers of flats in Nof Zion who are worried that Mr Al-Masri will sell new flats only to Palestinians, they persuaded the main Digal shareholders to sell the company to Jewish buyers only.

Digal had not been the only target of Mr Al-Masri; he also announced last week that he is setting up a $70 million foundation to finance new Palestinian building projects.

"The settlements are devilish," he said in his interview, "they steal Palestinian land and are an obstacle to the independent Palestinian state. The time has come to end this damage."

He revealed that the reason he managed to get so close to buying Digal was because he approached the seller through a Cypriot company to hide his real motives.

Mr Al-Masri lived most of his life in the United States, where he made his fortune. In 1995, he returned to the Palestinian territories and was a favourite of former chairman Yassir Arafat, who awarded him various infrastructure contracts. He is close today to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Last updated: 1:01pm, January 13 2011