Lifta’s legacy under threat

Lifta village (Aisha Mershani)


There are few villages in historic Palestine which invoke the memories of the Nakba (the 1948 dispossession of the Palestinian people) as does Lifta. Beautifully built and dressed in crafted Jerusalem stone, Lifta hugs the slopes straddling the highway leading from west Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Its remaining houses look like jewels of a necklace, neglected by time and polished by the wind of history.

However, Lifta’s architectural legacy is under threat as Israel moves to Judaize the formerly pluralistic Palestinian village.

Lifta dates back about 4,000 years, and overlooks Wadi Salman and Wadi al-Shami which, in their heyday, provided it with its main water supply essential for its agricultural produce. Believed to have been built on the site of Mey Neftoach, a source of water near Jerusalem, Lifta is still blessed today by a running creek and a small peaceful pond in its midst.

Back in 1596, Lifta had a population of 396 residents which by 1945 increased to 2,550 Palestinians the majority of whom were Muslims owning 7,780 dunums (one dunum is approximately 1,000 square meters). Official records indicate that in 1931, the number of houses stood at 410, most of which were built by Lifta’s Palestinian residents using the famous Jerusalem stone from nearby quarries. Some of these houses stand at two and three stories high and display the cubist forms against the rolling hillside. They represent today some of the finest examples of Palestinian craftsmanship and architectural design.

During the 1940s and leading up to the end of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1948, Lifta expanded markedly eastward and northward linking with the buildings of the Rumayma neighborhood just west of Jerusalem. Its economic ties with Jerusalem became strong as nearly half of Lifta’s cultivated land was planted with cereal, wheat, barley, olives and various fruits.

Prior to the tragic events of 1948, Lifta’s ethnic mix was made up predominantly of the Muslims with a colored mix of Christian and Jewish minorities. This resulted in a strong sense of community life with a well-knit social bonding which was particular to Lifta. Documents describe some of the grand houses in Lifta as being shared by Jewish and Muslim families who, on occasions, would exchange local produce such as cheese and milk in addition to other products which would be sold in the local market. Also, the children of Lifta families from different backgrounds frequented the same village schools and enjoyed their time out in the same playgrounds. Lifta enjoyed an intricate web of woven streets, bustling with markets, coffee houses, a bakery and a pharmacy. Lifta residents had free access to the neighboring Jewish eye hospital. Community life in Lifta was, therefore, inclusive rather exclusive.

It is also known that Lifta residents celebrated their religious festivities together in the main square. Local mosques became the hub centers for discussions of social and cultural issues of the day.

The ethnic cleansing of Lifta

Lifta’s tranquility and social harmony were tragically ended when, on the heels of UN Resolution 181 of November 1947, and as part of the Zionist Plan Dalet for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the Jewish armed militia Stern Gang entered Lifta on 28 December 1947, made their way to the local coffee house in the center of the village and gunned down six residents and injured seven others. Within 10 days, Lifta was turned into a ghost town with all 2,960 terrorized inhabitants being driven out and trucked to East Jerusalem where most of them remained. Quite a number of the village houses and the two elementary schools were demolished. Only after last desperate pleas by local dignitaries were most of the houses standing today saved from total destruction.

The uprooting of Lifta was a tragedy for all its mutli-ethnic population. The Nakba of Lifta was a catastrophe for Muslims, Christians and Jews. It has been told that the Jewish Hilo tribe which lived in the upper hills of Lifta were given the option by the advancing Jewish militia, the Stern Gang, to remain in Lifta, but they decided to join the Liftawis in their exodus, and left.

In the years since their expulsion, most of the Lifta refugees and their descendants ended up in Jerusalem, Ramallah, the rest of the West Bank, Jordan and the US where they formed a tightly-knit and active community in Chicago, Illinois.

Lifta’s architectural legacy

Until recently, the remaining houses of Lifta attracted an inquisitive number of locals and professionals mesmerized by the haunting elegance of their design, their original forms and the majesty of their setting. Tourists from abroad would arrive on organized tours led by one of Lifta’s original residents, Yacoub Odeh, who would painfully yet proudly narrate to them the village history and its eventual demise pointing in particular to the house where his family lived and which he himself as a child helped to construct. Until recently, some Liftawis would arrive from Jerusalem to venture down the winding rubble path to the main open square of the village. They would sit by the pool and fill their bottles with the pure spring water while exchanging memorable stories with those willing to listen. Until recently, the magnificent Lifta houses displayed one of the most beautiful forms of Arabic architecture: the dome. The cubic forms of the houses contrasted beautifully with the elegant curves of the domed roofs.

It is told that all the builders of Lifta did not use mortar or cement to bond their stones together. The dry construction process was made possible through the exacting techniques employed by the local stonemasons. They chiseled pristine and fine forms in stone to build their arches, square angles, external corners, quadrants, double and stepped arches. Most of the windows in these houses were sheltered by these fine arches and displayed perfect and well-proportioned rectangles of the type only modern architects can produce on their computers.

Until recently, Lifta’s heart was beating and its heartbeat was sustained by the visits of its original inhabitants. However, extremist Jewish settlers began to move in, while the original Liftawi visitors were blocked out. In a last attempt at architectural rape, and to ensure that the remaining Lifta houses would never be inhabited again, the settlers began to demolish some of the elegant domes thus exposing the living spaces below them to the external elements. Slowly, the tourists stopped coming down the hillside to visit Lifta and their tour guides had to be content with looking down at the village from the main roadside higher up the slopes. Then more Jewish settlers arrived and became the new hippie “squatters.” Occasional “religious seminars” were initiated by them to give their activity a sense of legitimacy.

Lifta today remains a ghost town suspended in time. Yet its elegance remains defiant and a symbol of the destruction of the Palestinian village during the Zionist military sweep in 1948. Lifta has become a symbol of the Palestinian Nakba. In its present state, it shouts at us for recognition and for attention.

Israel’s plans for Lifta

In June 2004, the Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee, with the help of two architectural offices, G. Kartas/S Grueg and S Ahronson (in collaboration with Ze’ev Temkin of TIK Projects), produced a redevelopment project (Plan No. 6036) to turn Lifta into an exclusively Jewish luxury residential/commercial neighborhood. This plan, originally launched in April 1984 under the name “Plan 2351” but never implemented, had the intriguing title of “The Spring of National.” It was later approved by a regional planning committee. Under the misleading cover title of a preservation project, the plan called for the building of some 245 luxury housing units, a big shopping mall, a tourist resort, a museum and a luxury 120-room hotel. Most of the existing Lifta houses would be destroyed to erase any lingering memory of a once thriving Palestinian community. Even the Palestinian cemetery nearby does not figure in the new plan. Not only have the present Liftawis not been featured or consulted, but the memory and physical presence of their dead ancestors would now be erased.

This attempt at architectural and cultural erasure in the Israeli proposals for reshaping Lifta has its equivalent in the present day work by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center to build a Museum of Tolerance over part of the Muslim Cemetery in Mamilla not far from Lifta. In a shameful acknowledgment of the existing fabric of the village, the redevelopment project for Lifta attempts to “preserve” a few houses which would be renovated but only for use by rich Jews from the Diaspora. A few existing trees would be left and some existing landscaping elements such as the spring and the terracing would be given a makeover in a gesture full of pastiche and borrowed imagery.

The history of the Palestinian community that flourished in Lifta does not feature in the new renovation plans. There is no record of Lifta’s Palestinian history as would normally be required of any renovation/preservation project, to link the present with the past. Even Lifta’s original mosque would be destined for removal to be replaced by a synagogue. If the plan is carried out, it would be nothing but a flagrant attempt to Judaize Lifta.

Saving Lifta

Lifta must be preserved and rebuilt by/for its original owners to raise awareness about the history of 1948. Lifta, in its new image, should pave the way for establishing a determined campaign for truth and reconciliation between two historic peoples. Lifta, in our view, represents the traceable genealogy which gives insight into the origins of the conflict. Peeling the layers of conflict would lead to an acknowledgment of the tragedy and an understanding of its implication on people’s identity.

Placing Lifta on the international architectural agenda has been the first objective and the primary aim of one of the most active professional groups involved on behalf of Lifta. This group is The Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territories (FAST), an architectural and planning group based in Amsterdam. Together with Zochrot (“remembering”), a body of Israeli professionals based in Tel Aviv working to raise awareness of the Nakba, they have argued passionately against the renovation plans submitted by the State of Israel, and have called, like FAST, for the right of return of the Liftawis to their homes. It is crucial that this campaign should lead to a change in the Israeli planning policies which are presently based on segregation and discrimination, and to opt for an alternative vision to achieve equality and long-term sustainability. A vision which promotes the idea of a place for Lifta, a sense of belonging for the Liftawis and reconciliation for the region.

Supplementing this campaign, we, at 1948.Lest.We.Forget, launched last year on our website (www.1948.org.uk) a Petition To Save Lifta which attracted more than 2,400 international signatures by people from all walks of life including high profile personalities in academia, architecture and literature. This petition has now closed and will be included as part of our application to the World Monuments Watch to declare Lifta a place of special character.

Moreover, as we believe that Lifta remains a symbol of reconciliation and hope in a region of continued conflict and tragedy, it is our intention to launch an International Architectural Competition with an open-ended brief, and to invite registered planners and architects from all over the world to contribute ideas and to produce schemes for one of the Lifta houses still standing.

The competition results will be exhibited in major capitals of the world, the first of which will be London where, over a period of four weeks, seminars, films, audio-visual presentations and debates will be held.

Antoine Raffoul is a Palestinian-born chartered architect living and working in London. He is also the coordinator of]the group 1948: Lest We Forget.