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16949Israeli businessman convicted of "sordid" land fraud

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    Sep 17, 2012

      Israeli businessman convicted of "sordid" land fraud
      Friday, 14 September 2012 12:42

      The District Court in East Jerusalem has convicted an Israeli
      businessman of fraud. Benno Zussman was found guilty of fabricating
      documents relating to land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in

      The court's proceedings revealed that Zussman had deceived the
      Patriarchate as he forged contracts signed with the Jewish National Fund
      for the sale and lease of huge tracts of land in the Holy City. The
      Israeli media described the deals as "the most sordid real estate
      scandals in Israel's history."

      Zussman was brought to justice after he had fled to Romania and Israel
      signed an extradition agreement with the government in Bucharest in 2010.

      The Patriarchate expressed its satisfaction with the decision of the
      court which, it said, serves justice, despite the lengthy wait for the
      trial to take place. "This will help us to retain our lands which were
      stolen through fraud," a spokesman said.

      Many sources reported that the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, which
      owns a great deal of land in the city, is involved in land sales with a
      number of Israeli real estate companies. The Palestinian Authority has
      warned the Patriarchate to halt such deals. The Israeli newspaper Maariv
      reported in May this year that although it had stopped selling its
      properties it continued to rent them. The agreements between the
      Patriarchate and leaseholders give the latter the full right to rent and
      sell the land as soon as the leases end in 2051.

      Many of Israel's main government buildings, such as the Knesset,
      Israel's presidential residence and office, the Chief Rabbinate and
      hundreds of units for Jewish settlers are built on lands leased from the
      Patriarchate, media sources said. These areas include public parks in
      central Jerusalem.

      According to a Hebrew language website, Zussman was convicted of a deal
      which involved land covering thousands of acres on which apartments and
      public buildings were built. The value of the deal, which was a result
      of months of secret negotiations, is estimated at £12.5 million. The
      deal was signed by the Greek Patriarch Theophilus III and his financial
      deputy in March 2011.

      At least one of the deals was approved by the higher authorities of the
      Orthodox Church in Greece. Around 1,500 square metres of prime land in
      Jerusalem was sold for £6m to an Israeli developer acting on behalf of

      The International Middle East Media Centre said in a report about the
      role of the Patriarchate in ceding the land to Jews that Greek Orthodox
      Christians in Palestine are boycotting the Patriarchate for its
      violations, especially since it does not pay attention to the needs of
      its followers in Palestine and in occupied Jerusalem. Most of them are
      forced to leave their homes as they have no place to live while the
      Patriarchate is leasing its land to settlers and Jewish organisations.