The Fight to Save Lifta, the Last Remaining Palestinian Village

July 09th, 2021

By Jessica Buxbaum

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Lifta, the only town Israel did not demolish after the Nakba, stands as a symbol of the Palestinian right of return, but an Israeli government “development” plan may soon change that.

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.

Lifta Jerusalem
The ruins in Lifta, a Palestinian village ethnically cleased in 1948. Liebe Blekh | MintPress News

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.

Lifta refugee
Yacoub Odeh, Nakba survivor and head of the Lifta Cultural Heritage Protection Commission. Liebe Blekh | MintPress News

“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.”

Saving Lifta

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.

The World Monuments Fund added Lifta to its list of endangered sites in 2018 and UNESCO added the village to its tentative list of world heritage sites.

‘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.”

Lifta Jerusalem
A Palestinian woman holds a partially eaten fig picked from a tree in Lifta. Liebe Blekh | MintPress News

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.”

Jewish settlers in LIfta
Israeli settlers in Lifta hold a middle finger to a group of Palestinian children. Blekh | MintPress News

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.”

Israel, Don’t Raise the Roof Beams High As You “Resettle” Lifta; Its Owners Will Return

By Rima Najjar

Global Research, June 01, 2021

All Global Research articles can be read in 51 languages by activating the “Translate Website” drop down menu on the top banner of our home page (Desktop version). 

Visit and follow us on Instagram at @crg_globalresearch.

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The latest crisis in Palestine cannot be set aside as another passing episode in Israel’s forever war against the Palestinian people.

We are now witnessing shocks within Israel behind the Green Line, something that Israel had hitherto been able to contain. In the process, it pretended, along with much of the western world, that it is the “longest-lived democracy in the Middle East” and that only its continued occupation of the West Bank and its harsh blockade of Gaza undermine its “constitutional ideals”- ideals now exposed for what they’ve always been: Jewish supremacist in nature. 

We know, as CJ Werleman wrote in Inside Arabia on May 14, 2021,

“Israel is a country built on racism, dispossession, and genocide. The recent rise in attacks by Israeli settlers, vigilante groups, and lynch mobs targeting Palestinians are a continuation of that history and must be addressed.”

There is an unbreakable thread between the Palestinian man lynched by Israeli Jews on the pavement after being pulled from his car in Jaffa and then beaten unconscious recently and the killings and massacres at the hands of Zionist militia in Jaffa and elsewhere in 1948 that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, as recounted by Israeli historian Benny Morris.

The myth, amplified by Wikipedia, is that historians [presumably Israeli] disagree “concerning the effect these killings and massacres had on the Palestinian refugee flight and whether or not these killings and massacres were carried out with the intent of hastening it.”

Palestinian historians have absolutely no doubt about what happened then and why, just as we Palestinians have no doubt about what is happening now in occupied Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, in Gaza and in several towns and cities behind the Green Line where Israel has imposed states of emergency — and why.

Take, for example, my own father’s village of Lifta on the northwestern edge of Jerusalem. It is the last remaining Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed of its population in the 1948 Nakba. Now, Israel is set to destroy what remains of it.

The Jerusalem Post (JP), an Israeli English newspaper where facts are shaped by a narrative driven by Zionist values instead of knowledge, reported on this deeply disturbing piece of news this month by denying, like those Israeli historians who are still disputing historical facts, that any ethnic cleansing took place in Lifta — apparently, my grandfather just up and put his eight children and wife in a truck and abandoned his home so that, 73 years later, his village would be “resettled” by Israeli Jews and a luxury hotel built there.

The Israeli newspaper published the following shameful headline:

“Arab village of Lifta, abandoned in ’48, to house new Israeli neighborhood: The western neighborhood in Jerusalem which was abandoned in ’48 will be resettled with 259 housing units, including a luxury hotel.”

report by Hidden Palestine: a News & Media Website, which, unlike JP, is a site driven by a narrative that values freedom from oppression, provides us with the following facts:

The Israeli land authority announced this month that it is taking bids from construction companies to take charge of the real estate development of Lifta, with the contract set to last 98 years.

The agreement includes the construction of 259 buildings, as well as commercial and business units, in addition to a hotel. If it moves forward, the deal would also see the majority of the Palestinian village’s remaining buildings razed to the ground.

Thanks to petitions by its past Palestinian residents, Lifta was declared as one of 25 endangered sites on the 2018 World Monuments Watch list. It also appears on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites, which has led to threats from Netanyahu that Israel would withdraw from UNESCO.

Lifta has few parallels anywhere in the world. The Palestinian village, lying on a slope at the entrance to Jerusalem, is the last ethnically cleansed Palestinian village to be frozen in time. Here, hundreds of beautiful Palestinian stone houses have continued to stand the test of time, empty and neglected for the past 73 years.

With a history dating back at least 700 years as a Palestinian Arab village, Lifta was among the wealthiest communities in the Jerusalem area, and the women were known for their fine embroiders. Thob Ghabani bridal dresses were sewn in Lifta, which were made of ghabani, a natural cotton covered with gold color silk floral embroidery produced in Aleppo. The village’s clothing stores attracted Palestinians and Arabs from across the Levant.

The entire population was forced out following brutal attacks by the invading Hagannah militias in early 1948. It is an incredible but depressing place to visit, and its destruction would contribute to the continued erasure of Palestinian culture and heritage.

The Jerusalem Post’s story made it sound as though the “resettling” of Lifta was a preservation and development project. What it is, in fact, is a rewriting of history.

Destroying Lifta destroys opportunities for Palestinians to uncover the past of both Palestinians and Israelis: “Lifta has a lasting value in its own right, as it can link restitution to the right of return. Moreover, its preservation will be an opportunity to assert the restoration of dignity in the Palestinian as well as the Jewish community. Finally, by halting the new development in Lifta, UNESCO will affirm its global credibility in response to cultural cleansing.” [See LIFTA AFTER ZIONIST PLANNING and PLANNING AS A CRIMINAL ACT]

Israel’s expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, Jerusalem neighborhoods just outside the Green Line, are motivated by the same Zionist objective that resulted in the expulsion, also known as ethnic cleansing, of Palestinians like my family from Lifta, which is just inside the Green line. (See Israeli 2019 map of so-called “Greater Israel” below with Lifta, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan circled). That objective is Israel’s desire to Zionize/Judaize all of Jerusalem and all of Palestine.

Israeli 2019 map of so-called “Greater Israel” below with (left to right) Lifta, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan circled

I hope the ongoing worldwide protests on social media against Israel’s crimes will now add the rallying cry of #SaveLifta, in addition to #SaveSheikhJarrah and #SaveSilwan.

If you are still in doubt about Israel’s intention, listen to two Palestinian citizens of Israel reacting to the message they have heard loud and clear all their lives from successive Israeli governments:

Eva Najjar, Haifa-based lead designer and developer at Just Vision, writes:

“I knew I was bringing my children into an ethnic-supremacist state when they were born. But after these past weeks, I don’t know how I can continue to raise them here.” (In The Washington Post: Palestinian citizens of Israel like me are facing terrifying new attacks)

Diana Buttu wonders:

“How do I explain to my 7-year-old son what being a Palestinian citizen of Israel means? What future can he look toward, when the leaders of the government incite hatred against him? What audacious hope can he have when he is bound to face racism and discrimination in education, employment and housing? For now, I try to shield him from the images on television and on our phones, but there will soon come a time when I cannot shield him from the reality that he is surrounded by people who consider him a second-class citizen.” (In The New York Times: The Myth of Coexistence in Israel)

I am heartened by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Special Session held on May 27, which for the first time has included a geographic scope encompassing Israeli violations targeting the Palestinian people on both sides of the Green Line.

Israel’s institutionalized regime of racial domination and oppression targets the Palestinian people as a whole, including those no longer in Lifta through no fault of their own, who have more right by far to reconstruct their homes in Lifta than Israeli Jews have in constructing housing and luxury hotels to “resettle” the village. We will return, so don’t raise the roof beams high, Israel.

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Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank.

She is a frequent contributor to Global Research.

Featured image: Taken from slides in “Reconstruction of Memory — Lifta — 2007” by Malkit Shoshan

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