By Ezzedine Said
(AFP) - Jerusalem's tiny Armenian community has seen Islamic conquests, the Crusades, the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire, the British mandate and most recently the Israeli occupation, but has kept its identity throughout.
The community, present in the Holy Land since the fifth century, is today made up largely of descendants of those who survived Turkish massacres of Armenians between 1915 and 1917, as the Ottoman Empire fell apart. But they are indignant at the refusal by Israel, a country's whose identity draws amply on the Nazis' killing of millions of Jews during the Second World War, to recognize their own 'genocide'.
The massacre has already been acknowledged as genocide by a number of countries, including France, Canada and Switzerland. Armenians will remember the 90th anniversary of the start of the 1915-1917 slaughter on April 24.
Some 2,000 Armenians live in the Old City's Armenian quarter and its vast monastery, with another 1,000 in the West Bank and 2,000 more in Israel, says George Hintlian, historian and spokesman for the Armenian community. "With regard to Israel and its bureaucracy, we are like the Palestinians. We consider ourselves to be Jerusalemites born in Palestine," he explains, walking along the road of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate.
It's night-time, and the popular Armenian Tavern is serving lahmajun, a thin pizza topped with minced meat, to its last clients. Israeli cars drive slowly down the narrow street to the Jewish quarter or towards the Wailing Wall. At the monastery's entrance, a group of youths stands on the ancient paving stones and chats in Armenian. This former hospice turned monastery then home to hundreds of Armenians is only accessible to residents and invited visitors.
Restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities on the Palestinian population are part of Armenians' daily life since the eastern part of the city was occupied in 1967. The Armenians of Jerusalem, as in the rest of the world, also say that Israel's strategic alliance with Turkey which began in 1996 has hampered their quest for global recognition of their genocide.
"The worst consequence of the alliance between Israel and Turkey is the fact that the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Jewish lobby openly intervened on two occasions in 1999 and 2001 to prevent Congress from recognizing the Armenian genocide," says Hintlian.
Twenty of his family members, including his grandfather and uncle, died in the massacres, he says. "It's difficult to understand the official Israeli position on the Armenian genocide, coming from a country that was a victim of its own genocide in the same century," he says.
The presence of Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek at the inauguration of Israel's new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem in March, to which no Armenian representative was invited, "shocked" the community, says Hintlian. With a hint of bitterness, he shows the remains of posters detailing the Armenian genocide glued to walls along the street and torn down, he says, by passing Jews. "Sometimes they write 'big lie' over them," he says.
Elise Aghazarian, 26, says she is "Armenian in her blood and Palestinian in her soul." "We are attached to Mount Ararat but also to Jerusalem. I am for a bi-national Palestinian and Israeli state, but if a division is imposed I would want to be on the Palestinian side," says this researcher and sociology graduate, who lives inside the "monastery".
While she pragmatically considers the Turkish-Israeli pact "an alliance of interests", she is no less irritated by the Israeli refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide. "It boils down to saying that Jewish blood is more sacred than other peoples'," she says.
More than 30 percent of Armenians have emigrated from the Holy Land since 1967, says Hintlian, adding that "if there is no solution, in 20 or 30 years our number may have dropped by half."
But Aghazarian is not about to leave. "I belong here and I wouldn't want to leave even if the difficult living conditions put us under constant pressure," she says.