LIFTA, JERUSALEM — Yacoub Odeh is 81 years old but he can still remember his childhood in the Palestinian village of Lifta as if it were yesterday. Children playing together in the gardens, swimming in the pools and laying in the grass.
Today, Lifta remains as a frozen time capsule. While the residents were expelled during Israel’s 1948 ethnic cleansing campaign (Nakba), the ruins of their homes still stand. These ruins carved into the lush hillside are perceived as a symbol of the Palestinians’ right of return. This is the only town Israel did not demolish after the Nakba, but a government plan may soon change that.
In May, the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), the government agency in charge of managing public lands, issued a new tender for construction in Lifta. The development scheme, known as Plan 6036, seeks to build 259 housing units along with a commercial and business space and a luxury hotel on top of and around the existing houses. Daphna Golan-Agnon, a law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and part of the Save Lifta Coalition’s board, explained that while the homes may not be demolished, “the village will disappear behind walls of concrete needed to hold new construction.”
The bid was supposed to be held on July 4, but significant public opposition delayed it to July 29.
Attempts to demolish Lifta have been ongoing for years. The ILA first published a tender for Plan 6036 in 2010 after the Israeli state approved the construction plan for Lifta in 2006. A 2012 Jerusalem District Court ruling found Plan 6036 insufficient and requested amending it in accordance with a conservation survey on Lifta from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
The IAA survey was completed in 2017 and found that Plan 6036 could not be executed without making significant adjustments in order to preserve the ancient village. Plan 270b was drawn up to fit the survey’s findings but in 2017 the Local Planning and Building Committee of Jerusalem temporarily halted the initiative for further examination.
The recent ILA announcement was met with hundreds of letters to Jerusalem’s mayor rejecting the sale. When reached for comment, the Municipality of Jerusalem told MintPress News that it “wasn’t informed about the publication of this tender and didn’t approve it. The mayor of Jerusalem asked all the relevant authorities to reconsider the construction plan.” The Israel Lands Council, which operates the ILA, did not respond to a request for comment.
‘In one hour, we became refugees’
Lifta’s strategic location at the edge of Jerusalem has made it a prime target for land grabs. Acting as a suburb of Jerusalem, Lifta’s placement next to the Jerusalem-Jaffa Highway makes for an easy trip to the Mediterranean while still being tied to the city of Jerusalem.
Lifta, often referred to as the entrance to Jerusalem, was a wealthy, agricultural community supported by olive presses and flour mills and situated atop the Wadi al-Shami spring. Homes made of limestone were cut into the hillside and Lifta’s roads wended through the valley.
Prior to the 1948 Nakba, Zionist militias like the Haganah saw seizing Lifta as necessary to cement Jewish control over all of Palestine. According to the Haganah Historical Archives, “[s]ecuring the western exit of the city [of Jerusalem] entailed the eviction of Arabs.” Israeli historian Benny Morris said the Haganah fired the first shots in 1947, setting off the mass expulsion of Lifta’s 2,960 residents.
In December 1947, the Haganah killed a Palestinian business owner in Lifta. Later that month, one of Lifta’s two coffeehouses was ambushed with gunfire and grenades. The attack killed six and wounded seven. Two months into 1948, the Jewish Agency chairman and future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, boasted of the ethnic cleansing’s success, telling his political party members: “From your entry into Jerusalem through Lifta — Romema, through Mahane Yehuda, King George Street and Mea She’arim — there are no strangers. One hundred percent Jews.“
Odeh, head of the Lifta Cultural Heritage Protection Commission, was 8-years-old when Lifta came under siege by Zionist forces.
“I remember one day my mother was preparing the fire to heat our room, and then [the Zionist miltiias] began to shoot. My brothers began to cry, ‘Mama, mama! They’re shooting us!’ My mom took us inside the room in the corner and under a table to protect us,” Odeh said, recalling two stories of Lifta — the town’s beauty and charm and then its tragic fall.
“There is the beautiful life and then began the miserable life because of the occupation.”
Toward the end of February 1948, Odeh’s father put him, his siblings and his mother into a truck heading to Ramallah to escape the violence in Lifta. Odeh’s father stayed behind to defend the village from the Zionist gangs.
“We were only wearing the clothing we had on because we are coming back tomorrow. We are coming back. Now we just want to be far from the shooting.” Odeh took a deep sigh and said, “In one hour, we became refugees.”
Today, 55 buildings out of approximately 450 remain in Lifta, including a club, mosque, cemetery and school, which now operates as a school for Israeli Jews. Liftawi refugees are estimated at around 30,000 and live in Jerusalem, the Occupied West Bank and the Diaspora. Most of the homes are empty, but a few are occupied by Israeli settlers. According to Zochrot, the Israeli nonprofit seeking to raise awareness of the Nakba, the “settlements of Mey Niftoach and Giv’at Sha’ul were built on village lands and now have become parts of the suburbs of Jerusalem.”
The Save Lifta Coalition orchestrated the campaign to the mayor and has been organizing since 2010 against Plan 6036. The organization spent five years working with scholars, activists, conservation specialists and higher education professionals to develop an alternative to 6036.
Their proposal aims to “expand the area of the national park and turn the village into a natural urban space for the adjacent neighborhoods,” while preserving Lifta’s cultural landscape.
‘Not something we can discuss now’
When asked about the plan’s responsibility regarding the right of return for Palestinians, Golan-Agnon said, “our plan is a plan to save Lifta as it is for the future generations to decide upon its fate.” She explained:
Many of us [in the coalition] do think there should be a right of return for Palestinians but we know it’s not something we can discuss now. So we say, it’s beautiful, keep it open, and then one day there can be a decision about what happens and who’s coming.
Dana Amawi’s grandmother grew up in Lifta and was expelled from the village in 1948. Now the family lives in Amman, Jordan. The 20-year-old said she was shaken to her core upon hearing the news of the sale. “Lifta symbolized a tiny, very small bit of hope that maybe we will be able to return to it,” Amawi told MintPress. “And now to think that other people might live in the house that I have the right to be in, it’s very sad.”
Amawi said that her grandmother fell ill after learning of the auction. “She got sick. She had a fever and she was really, really sad because to her, this is where she grew up. This is where her earliest memories are and this is where she has the right to be,” Amawi said.
Stone houses like the one Odeh spent his early childhood in now crumble from neglect. The walls are sprayed with graffiti and piles of trash line the floors. On Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath), you’ll often find Israelis bathing in the spring’s waters.
Aseel AlBajeh, advocacy officer and legal researcher at the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, visited Lifta in 2018. Her grandmother, who lives in Ramallah, is from Lifta. “It was a painful experience,” AlBajeh said of her time in Lifta. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back to Lifta in this situation.”
‘You are here as a visitor’
During her visit, AlBajeh tried recalling her grandmother’s memories of a flourishing Lifta, but she said those stories were disrupted by the fact that she’s only in Lifta because of a permit she received from the Israeli government to enter 1948-occupied Palestine or modern-day Israel from the West Bank. “You are here as a visitor. It’s like it’s not a place where you belong, or this is what [the Israeli government] intends for refugees to feel like,” AlBajeh said. “Settlers were swimming in the spring of the village and they were blasting loud music, and it also disrupted my ability to even imagine Lifta as Palestinian.”
To help her reclaim Lifta, AlBajeh took a small piece of the village’s remains during her visit. She collected a broken tile painted with traditional designs from one of the house’s floors, knowing this might be the last physical object she can have of Lifta.
“Lifta is a witness of what happened during the Nakba,” AlBajeh said, explaining:
We have this connection as Palestinians, and when we see the cactus plants, we connect this as evidence that displacement happened here. And if you go to Lifta, you’ll see the huge amount of cactus. So even if the houses remain and [Israel] tries to remove the cactus, it’s still painful… It’s not about the stones or about the trees. It’s about the whole identity of Lifta and the Palestinian history, which we still connect to. “
‘We were kings in our village’
Odeh’s memories paint Lifta as an idyllic place, an oasis carved into the steep slopes of Jerusalem where life was carefree and bountiful. “We were kings in our village,” Odeh said. “Everything we need, we had — a life so simple. We didn’t need cinema or computers, no, everything we needed came from our land.”
But the minute Odeh and his family became refugees, their resources became scarce. “At that time there were no charitable associations or agencies ready to help,” Odeh recalled. “You know what Nakba means? Nakba does not mean to destroy homes. No, Nakba means to destroy the life — economic life, social life, educational life, political life. They destroyed our life.”
Upon reminiscing about Lifta, Odeh said his dream is to go back home:
I miss my childhood. Palestinian children have lost their childhood life to play like children, to go to the theater, to concerts, to football. No, until now we have house demolitions, we have arrests, we have land confiscation and killings. Every day we have events like these — if not my family, my neighborhood.”
Feature photo | A group of Israeli settlers in Lifta take a photo of a group of Palestinian children raising a painting of the Palestinian flag. Liebe Blekh | MintPress News
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.