Yacoub Odeh in Lifta (Jillian Kestler-D’Amours)
A natural spring, countless olive trees, a mosque and virtually every stone used to build the village’s unmistakable houses — Yacoub Odeh remembers it all.
“Here was where the water went down to the spring. Here was the root of the village. This place name was al-Saha. Saha means plaza. It was surrounded by a wall. It was clean,” explained Odeh, as he guided a tour through the heart of his childhood village of Lifta in early February.
“I remember everything. I remember the spring. I remember my house. I remember where we were playing with my sister, with the neighborhood children,” he said.
Odeh was born in Lifta, a Palestinian village nestled in a hillside northwest of Jerusalem, in 1940. He was eight years old when he and his family were forced from their homes during the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe), the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians when the State of Israel was created in 1947-48.
Since that time, Odeh has been coming back to the village numerous times a year to make sure the area is clean and taken care of. Today, as the Jerusalem municipality moves to build a new neighborhood — for Jewish residents only — over Lifta lands, Odeh is more concerned than ever about preserving the village he knows like the back of his hand.
“This Israeli government is stupid. They are not civilized. It is a natural area. It is a historical area, an open area. If it was not destroyed during the war, why [is it being] destroyed in the time they are talking about peace?” he said.
Luxury condos envisioned for Lifta lands
In 2004, the Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee and two local architecture firms proposed a redevelopment plan for Lifta. Called “Plan Number 6036,” the project aims to turn the former Palestinian village into an exclusive, Jewish-only luxury neighborhood.
This past February the Israeli Lands Administration (ILA) began requesting tenders for bids from the private sector to sell the land in Lifta. The goal is to build 212 luxury apartment villas, a hotel and a network of roads and infrastructure on the expropriated Palestinian lands.
The project would necessitate the demolition of nearly all the existing houses and historical structures that remain standing in Lifta.
“They want to destroy the village houses, Lifta houses, because they are the integral eye-witnesses to the Nakba. Who was living here? Who did this belong to? Why it is left? You ask many questions [when you see the houses],” explained Odeh.
“They don’t want you to ask these questions. They want to close the book and put an end to the Nakba.”
Strongly opposed to the project, a group of Jerusalem-based activists, including Palestinian descendants from Lifta, submitted a petition to save the village earlier this month.
Shortly thereafter, an Israeli judge issued a temporary injunction on sales of land in Lifta, and ordered the ILA to desist from any activities that would harm the physical and cultural heritage of the village.
“Lifta should be a unique symbol for a process towards truth and reconciliation within a region torn by conflict. It should become a tangible sign of things to come. Its beauty and significance to be highlighted through an international dialogue to bring a ‘lost’ village back to life. Lifta is everything that the present defunct peace processes are not,” explained Antoine Raffoul, a Palestinian architect based in London and the coordinator of 1948 Lest We Forget project, in an email to The Electronic Intifada. (Raffoul wrote an article about the threat to Lifta’s architectural legacy for The Electronic Intifada entitled “Lifta’s legacy under threat” last September.)
The 1948 Lest We Forget campaign aims to secure the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, among other goals, and has been working extensively in an effort to save Lifta from destruction. The organization launched a Save Lifta Petition on its website, which garnered more than 2,950 international signatures, and filed an application to the World Monuments Watch to protect the village.
“We believe that the only way to halt the theft and destruction of Lifta is to bring its case unto the international theater and to ignite public opinion,” explained Raffoul, adding that the organization would soon be launching an international ideas competition for the preservation of Lifta, as well.
“This competition will be open to all professionals and members of the public from around the world. They will have their say, the Liftawis [owners of Lifta] will have their say and, hence, their voices cannot be ignored,” he wrote.
According to Odeh, the Jerusalem municipality’s decision to “renovate” Lifta demonstrates just how much the Israeli leadership does not understand the importance of the Palestinian refugee issue.
“To change the village to a colonial resort, it means they do not know what the size of the refugee case, problem, is. Because without solving the refugee problem, there is no peace,” Odeh said.
“And I say we can have peace. We can live together here and everywhere and we have enough place. We have enough place to live together as our grandfathers [did]. Without the Zionist movement, without the imperialism plans, we can.”
A Palestinian home in Lifta abandoned since the Nakba (Jillian Kestler-D’Amours)
Ethnic cleansing perpetrated in Lifta
One of the earliest Jerusalem-area villages believed to have existed since Roman times, Lifta was home to approximately 2,500 residents in the 1940s. The majority of its residents were Muslim Palestinians, yet a minority of Christians and Jews also called Lifta home.
At the time, residents owned about 7,780 dunums (one dunum is approximately 1,000 square meters) of land on which they planted a variety of trees and conducted basic agricultural activities. In his 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes the picturesque scene in Lifta.
“The village was a fine example of rural architecture, with its narrow street running parallel to the slopes of the mountains. The relative prosperity it enjoyed, like many other villages, especially during and after the Second World War, manifested itself in the construction of new houses, the improvement of roads and pavements, as well as in an overall higher standard of living,” Pappe writes.
In an attempt to evacuate the village from its original Palestinian residents, however, Pappe explains that the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that was involved in numerous attacks on Palestinians during the British Mandate of Palestine and later became the core of the Israeli army, attacked the village in December 1947.
“Armed with machine guns the Jews sprayed the coffee house, while members of the Stern Gang stopped a bus nearby and began firing into it randomly. This was the first Stern Gang operation in rural Palestine,” Pappe writes.
According to Yacoub Odeh, the Jewish militia attacks are what prompted all the residents of Lifta to leave.
“We went from our house, crossing the valley, climbing the slope here to Tel Aviv road. We were in the corner of the truck, six families’ children. I remember that. My father put my small sister and brother on his shoulders and I was running after them,” Odeh explained.
“We went in the truck only [with] our clothes. Nothing. We took nothing. The key was with my father because we were coming back [the next day]. We left because of the shooting and killing and we were afraid,” he added.
In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Pappe documents that in February of 1948, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, stated that “when you enter the city through Lifta and Romema, through Mahameh Yehuda, King George Street and Mea Shearim — there are no Arabs. One hundred percent Jews.”
Palestinian refugees must be consulted for future plans
A group of more than 300 individuals, mainly Palestinian refugees from Lifta, as well as some Israeli and international activists, toured the village on Friday, 18 March to better understand its history and the present situation.
“Every week for the last three weeks we’ve been there,” explained Uri Agnon, an Israeli activist with the Coalition to Save Lifta. “One time we [brought] thirty people to clean up the old mosque. We’re also having a petition that already has 1,000 people signed on it. We’re trying to get 3,000.”
Agnon explained that the coalition’s main goal is to stop the current development project in Lifta. While he said he was unsure what specific steps should be taken for the preservation for the village, he said that it shouldn’t be a one-sided decision taken by the Jerusalem municipality, but rather in dialogue with Palestinian refugees from the area.
“Politically I think it’s a horrible idea to destroy this village. Lifta reminds us every time we go to Jerusalem that this was not a landless country like [Israeli leaders] present it. There were people living here,” Agnon said.
“I think Lifta is a symbol. It’s amazing that it hasn’t been destroyed until now. It’s one of the most beautiful places in this area. It’s really unbelievably beautiful and it’s very interesting culture-wise,” he added.
London-based architect Antoine Raffoul agrees.
“Of all Palestinian villages destroyed, Lifta remains suspended in space, a haunting image of what was then, yet a rare opportunity for what will become in the future: a place for self-reflection, re-appraisal and mutual engagement. Lifta should become the key to architectural identity rather than the victim of architectural erasure,” Raffoul said.
And ultimately, for Yacoub Odeh, while spending time in Lifta today remains a painful reminder of his loss, he hasn’t lost hope that he will one day return to his village for good.
“I’ll not lose the hope that we will come back,” he said.
“Even God cannot remove my village from my mind, from my mentality. As you are, no one can remove your memories. Where you’re born, where you live, your mother, your father … [Lifta] is my great mother. No one can confiscate this from me.”
Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jilldamours.wordpress.com.