Saving Lifta: The last Palestinian village standing

Lifta village was depopulated during the Nakba. [Getty]
8 min read
16 June, 2021

Lying at the entrance to Jerusalem, with lands that in the past stretched all the way to the Old City, the hillside ruins of Lifta are a collection of exceptionally preserved Palestinian stone houses that have continued to stand, albeit neglected, for the past 73 years.

Now, the last partially intact Palestinian village of its kind in modern Israel is in danger of being demolished and replaced with a luxury real estate development.

Last month, the Israel Land Administration (ILA) issued a new tender for construction in Lifta, located on the north-western edge of Jerusalem.

"I grew up with the idea that Lifta is a symbol of our right to return"

The ruins of the village have stood as a historic testament to the depopulation of around 500 Palestinian towns and villages during the Nakba, or catastrophe, in 1948, during which time 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled during the establishment of the Israeli state.

Under the development plan, the village will be replaced with 259 housing units as well as commercial and business units, in addition to a luxury hotel. Most of the remaining traditional Palestinian buildings will be razed to the ground.

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“It’s heartbreaking, especially because it’s about personal memory,” Aseel AlBajeh, a legal researcher at Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, told The New Arab. Three of her grandparents are refugees from Lifta.

The thought that their historic town will be seized, sold, and turned into a modern Israeli housing development is beyond absurd for her.

“It was a very peaceful, magical place to live in,” she said, recounting her grandmother’s memories of the village. “It had a tree-lined lane which my grandma remembers as one of the most beautiful spots there, but also a very painful one because the villagers walked on that same path when they were forcibly displaced”.

Old houses are seen in the Palestinian village of Lifta in 2017. [Getty]
Old houses are seen in the Palestinian village of Lifta in 2017. [Getty]

In the months preceding the Nakba, many of Lifta’s inhabitants were driven out by Zionist militias by means of threats, house demolitions, and raids. The village was entirely depopulated after news of the Deir Yassin massacre spread, during which over 100 Palestinians were killed by Jewish paramilitaries.

AlBajeh’s grandmother, who was 10 at the time, took refuge with her family in different places until they settled in Ramallah, before then fleeing to Jordan after Israel occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during the 1967 war.

Together with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forcibly displaced in 1948, Israel has never allowed the residents of Lifta to return to their homes.

Israel’s Absentees’ Property Law of 1950 permits the state to expropriate the land and assets left behind and denies Palestinians their right to return and reclaim their property.

"The last partially intact Palestinian village of its kind in modern Israel is in danger of being demolished and replaced with a luxury real estate development"

In contrast to the 531 Palestinian towns and villages that were destroyed before being evacuated, Lifta has remained empty and frozen in time, with 60 of its 450 original houses still standing today.

“It’s like a time travel experience. You can still find the houses made of stones that are thousands of years old, the same cactus and olive trees,” AlBajeh, who last visited the ancient village two years ago, said.

Mostly untouched, and renowned for its local architecture, it is the last remnant in Israel of indigenous Palestinian cultural history. Many Palestinians consider it a silent witness to the Nakba, as well as a symbol of the hope of return.

Today, refugees from the village and their tens of thousands of descendants live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and other countries. Many of them maintain a strong connection to their native town, with those who can visiting it regularly.

An old photo of the home of Yasmin Munjeb Siyam's grandmother, Sohaila Omar Akleh, in Lifta.
A photo courtesy of Yasmin Munjed Siyam showing the house of her grandmother, Sohaila Omar Akleh, in Lifta

“Every day, I dream of going to visit Lifta. I’ve been told stories of its beauty,” Yasmin Munjed Siyam, a Palestinian medical graduate and grandchild of Liftawis told The New Arab. She was raised in Jordan and has never been able to see her homeland.

"Each generation will know the truth of the occupation and the ethnic cleansing! My grandparents were evacuated but I will go back there,” she recently tweeted.

Her grandmother, Sohaila Omar Akleh, who has Alzheimer’s, does not recognise Siyam but she remembers her idyllic childhood in Lifta before the Nakba. To this day, she often pleads to be able to go back.

“If I ask my grandma about the papers or keys of her home, she would stare at me thinking that I would steal them,” the 27-year-old also said.

"Together with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forcibly displaced in 1948, Israel has never allowed the residents of Lifta to return to their homes"

Her grandfather, who passed away years ago, was one of the co-founders of an association, "Save Lifta", which is fighting to preserve the village. Former residents and their descendants, alongside Palestinian and Jewish activists, have staunchly opposed the new construction.

Plans to demolish Lifta and replace it with a housing development have been touted for years. In 2012, an Israeli court annulled a building tender, claiming that a conservation and documentation survey must be carried out prior to selling the land for construction.

A survey was later conducted by Israel’s antiquities authority in 2016. Despite finding that the village should be protected as a place of heritage, proponents of the development project are now seeking approval from Israeli authorities to proceed.

Further to petitions by its past occupants, Lifta was declared one of the world’s 25 most endangered sites on the 2018 World Monuments Watch list. It also appears on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites.

A partial view of the old Palestinian village of Lifta on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. [Getty]
A partial view of the Palestinian village of Lifta in 2017. [Getty]

“I was shaken to the core when I heard about the settlement building project. Lifta is a place I’ve been hearing about all my life,” Dana Amawi, a Palestinian psychology student in Jordan with two Liftawi grandparents, told The New Arab.

“It’s unbearable that Israel tries time and again to wipe out our culture, but I’m also reassured knowing the Palestinian people will never be silent. We will always fight back,” the 20-year-old continued, saying she expects vocal rejection of the latest Israeli move.

Her grandmother, Sadiqa Hammoudeh, 92, has vivid memories of Lifta despite her old age. “She told me that she would walk back home from school and always contemplate the beautiful green scenery, how people used to enjoy time together, everyone knowing each other,” Amawi said.

After being forced out of their home, Hammoudeh and her family fled to Ramallah where they stayed with friends for a year, in the hope of going back to their hometown. They then moved to Jordan to start a new life.

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“I grew up with the idea that Lifta is a symbol of our right to return. Thinking about my grandma’s home that is still there and untouched since the Nakba has been a constant reminder that we have that right,” the young woman added, mentioning that she has applied for a visa to travel to Palestine several times, but to no avail.

The threat to destroy and resettle Lifta comes at a time of high-profile campaigns to forcibly displace Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, as well as ongoing Israeli settlement building.

“It’s a painful story, it makes me very upset to see how the Israeli state takes the properties of these families and occupies them,” Umar al-Ghubari, a group facilitator and political educator who also guides historical tours to destroyed Palestinian sites inside Israel, told The New Arab.

 “But through organising tours I’ve learned how to transform my sadness into political resistance to Israeli policies”, he said.

"It's not just erasing our history and identity from the landscape, but also from our knowledge and consciousness"

The proposed destruction of the ancient village would also further erase the last remnants of Palestinian culture and heritage, serving to rewrite history by eradicating the memory of dispossessed Palestinians.

“It’s not just erasing our history and identity from the landscape, but also from our knowledge and consciousness,” Ghubari pointed out.

Following the announcement of the new tender, Palestinians from Lifta have actively mobilised by hiring a lawyer to fight the case in court and campaigning on social media to stop the Land Authority’s project from going ahead.

The hashtag #SaveLifta has been trending in the past few weeks, with young Palestinians of Liftawi origin tweeting about their ancestral village and raising public awareness.

“I am from Lifta but I never saw it, my grandfather was born in it and he always told us about how beautiful it is. My grandfather died, but we still have the key of the house and the documents of the house and the land that he owned, and we will return to it inshallah,” an anonymous social media user wrote.

“It was strategically depopulated because of its position at one of Jerusalem’s entrances. Now, Israel wants to demolish my ancestral village to build a luxury settlement town,” Mohammad Jehad Ahmad’s post reads.

“Lifta is not only sacred for its descendants, but also for our collective imagination of return and our Palestinian liberated future”, another user with the name of ‘shams’ posted.

AlBajeh noted that the recent wave of Palestinian mobilisation in response to Israeli actions, and the changing discourse abroad towards seeking justice and accountability for Palestine, are signs of hope.

“Now we have the space to be listened to all over the world. Lifta, Sheikh Jarrah or Silwan are not unique,” Aseel AlBajeh from Al-Haq said.

“We need to keep highlighting this is the same regime that implements the same policies targeting the Palestinian people. As long as this is understood, it will lead to change”.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec