Last week, an organization called “Save Lifta” organized tours of the Palestinian village of the same name, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, to raise awareness about this very unique place, that is endangered today.
Lifta lies on hillsides on the western part of Jerusalem. 2,250 Palestinians lived there in 1945. The population was then expelled in 1948, during the Nakba –a word that literally means "disaster" and refers to the exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians who had to flee their homes because of the war that led to Israel's creation.
Hundreds of Palestinian villages had a similar story but Lifta is different because it is the only one that was neither destroyed nor inhabited again. The village of Ein Karem remained standing but was inhabited by Israelis, for example.
Today, 55 original stone houses are still standing but the village has never been repopulated. Over the years, it became a symbol of Palestinian history. And in the past two decades, it has also been at the heart of many controversies.
In the late 90s, a real estate project was designed to transform the abandoned village and its slopes –popular for hiking- into a new neighborhood.
The plan was first submitted to the Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee in 2004 and was approved by a regional committee. The original houses were to be a central element of the new plan entitled “The Spring of Naftoach” (the name many Israeli use to refer to Lifta, referring to the Bible).
A first public debate raged. Israelis and Palestinians raised concerns about changing this memento of life before 1948. Save Lifta – also known as Lifta Society, a group of supporters of this place from all over the world created in 1984 - started to be vocal in the media about preserving this place as a memorial.
In early 2011, the Israel Land Administration published a public tender for construction in Lifta.
At the time, developers had specifically committed to preserving the houses and meticulously restore them. Their plans also called for some of the houses to become restaurants and galleries. They claim it was the best thing to do for Lifta not to disappear.
One of the architects involved, Gadi Iron, had even told Haaretz that he envisioned Lifta as a world heritage site that should be preserved. He called it a "Garden of Eden" of streams and fruit trees and beautiful landscapes and a site containing important Palestinian architecture.
He also added that "Lifta is more important than the Taj Mahal, from the standpoint of its beauty and for its Mediterranean heritage. The Taj Mahal is kitsch. In Lifta, there's no kitsch."
Then, as controversy over the project grew, he started to refer to the plans as propositions for the village to be preserved as an architectural museum (more than a housing complex for wealthy American-Israelis to invest, as it had been said before).
In response to this plan, former residents brought a legal petition to preserve the village as a historic site. In 2012, plans to rebuild the village as an upscale neighborhood were rejected by the Jerusalem District Court.
Today, there are still threats on this village that some people nicknamed the “ghost-town”.
Lying at the doors of Jerusalem, an ever-growing city, Lifta is a very interesting place for investors as well as for politicians.
Besides, Lifta is also revered as a religious site and religious Jews come to bathe in the water spring, considered a place for mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths).
To answer those threats, Save Lifta pushed for the place to be on the UNESCO Tentative List – the first step before it can be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and to be protected as such.
In December 2015, Lifta indeed joined the tentative list. For some people it was a victory and a first step towards more security for the endangered village. For some others, it was seen as an Israeli appropriation of the place, since ultimately, Lifta would be part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites as an Israeli site.
Among Lifta supporters, some are also waving the environmental card.
An environmental survey conducted in 2015 found that 500 species of flora, including a number threatened with extinction, and a few hundred bird species are in the area, as well as mammals and reptiles.
That same year, residents living near Lifta decided to come up with their own plan to preserve its natural reserve. In their plan, they referred to the place as “Mitzpeh Naftoach”, which infuriated a lot of Palestinians involved in preserving Lifta as they felt renaming the place was actually appropriating it.
Environment-friendly residents (some of them being part of Save Lifta) kept working on the project anyway. They insisted it would serve as a site for getting to know more about its natural resources and preserving them –what matters the most in their eyes.
The hilltop would become a center for wild plants, to encourage butterflies to settle there. The orchards at the site would be rehabilitated, and trees appropriate to the local landscape would be planted.
Therefore, the community grew more and more, and critics were even joined by Shmuel Groag, one of the luxury housing project's original architects, who has accused the developers of failing to respect the basic rules of conservation in their treatment of Lifta.
Groag is now a member of Save Lifta that organized the tours last week.
Most of these tours were in Hebrew and he explained “the whole point of those tours is to reach out to Israelis for them to relate to Lifta and to commit to preserve it, even if it’s for many different reasons” –an argument that echoes the debate about the name of the place.
The leading figure of the coalition remains Yacoub Odeh, born in 1940, who was also at the events last week.
Odeh was 8 year-old when his family left Lifta and he recalls it by saying: “in one day we became refugees, from having everything we needed, and even more, we turned to be in Ramallah, knocking on doors to ask for help”.
Yacoub led the English-speaking tour. He spoke about every single details of his childhood in what used to be a peaceful and wealthy village, known for its quarries and rich agriculture.
Standing in front of his former house, now demolished, he said that he will “never forget, nor forgive” although he advocates for peace since he thinks “there’s enough space for everybody to live here”.
Even if he is 77 years old now, he spent more than 2 hours explaining everything he knows about Lifta’s history –a place he felt “like a fish in its bowl” until his family was expelled.
Today, he hopes he can go back to his home for good, and if not him maybe his children: “as sun sets down, it rises up again –even if I don’t see my family coming back here, it will be my son, and then his children.”
Asked about what keeps him hopeful, he went back on the history of this strategic point of western Jerusalem and said that “the Persians, the Ottomans, the British…they all passed by Lifta, but Palestinians are still here today to remember”.
What supporters from Save Lifta want to achieve is for Lifta to be labelled as a site to preserve and protect, definitely.
Sarah, a young volunteer in the organization, says that she would not like to come back to live here, but that as a Palestinian she feels it’s necessary to preserve a place for memory, “a place for Palestinians to remember their history”.
After the tours, Save Lifta also organized panel discussions with various experts such as Irit Cohen Amit, the chairman of ICOMOS Israel – a leading organization for world heritage sites - and Avi Mashiach from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
The latter disclosed an unpublished survey by the Israel Antiquities Authority. It is supposed to be the most comprehensive and the most expensive survey ever done in Israel for preservation. It recommends not to build, nor to change the original village plan. It also mentions various important things to preserve such as 6 ancient olive press houses, a well-kept Roman road, buildings from the 12th century and various other items, mostly made of clay, and dating back to more than 2,500 years ago.
Among speakers was Mónica Luengo Añón, head of the Scientific Committee for Cultural Landscapes at ICOMOS International. She worked on “cultural landscape” –places that in themselves are used for cultural purposes and she’s also an advisor to international and world cultural heritage sites.
Goals of these conversations are to sustainably preserve Lifta while satisfying everyone from refugees, such as Yacoub Odeh, to environmental activists and neighboring residents. If it’s ever possible.