Yacoub Odeh stands in front of the tanur, the community stone oven, next to his
old house and closes his eyes. “Our house was right here,” said the 71-year-old
former resident of Lifta, pointing to a pile of stones that forms the outline of
the foundation of a house. “As a little kid, I used to grab onto my mother’s
skirts when she went to make bread at the tanur. I’d hide in her skirts, and
then my favorite thing in the world was to eat the fresh bread right out of the
oven, with a little zaatar and olive oil.”
RELATED:Plans for Lifta luxury housing project temporarily halted Apartments to be built on top of abandoned Arab village
Odeh was eight years old in
1947 when the residents of Lifta, an Arab village at the entrance to Jerusalem,
fled. The strategic location of the village, climbing up a steep wadi and
stretching towards the Old City, looking down on most of modern-day Jerusalem,
meant it was one of the first villages to experience violence leading up to the
siege of the city.
Today Lifta is in the middle of a different struggle,
one that not only pits Arab history against Jewish history, but delves into the
question of how much the city needs to preserve as it grows and
In January, the Israel Lands Authority published a tender to
212 luxury apartment villas and a hotel in the area of Lifta, turning the
crumbling stone houses into lavish residences.
A coalition of activists
successfully petitioned the Jerusalem District Court to halt the tender in
March. The petition, filed by former Lifta residents, Rabbis for Human Rights,
and Jafra, a Palestinian heritage organization, calls for the courts to freeze
the bidding process and for the ILA to require that an independent monitoring
organization complete a survey of the area to determine what should be preserved
and what can be developed.
The activists argue that contractors
performing a survey of the land, as is currently required, will be inadequate
since the contractors have a commercial interest to preserve as little as
possible. The court granted a temporary freeze until a trial is held to
determine if the ILA can move forward with the bidding process. The court date at the Jerusalem District Court, which has been delayed by more than two months, is now set for
But the current legal impasse seems miles away from the
peacefulness of Lifta, which has stood abandoned but largely intact for 64
years. It is the only completely abandoned Arab village that was not destroyed
or inhabited by Jews after 1948, though its empty buildings have provided a
haven for drug dealers, prostitutes and the homeless.
The stone pool in
its center has become a popular mikve ritual bath for haredi men, who spend
summer Fridays lounging in the sun and barbecuing.
Jerusalem hikers have
long delighted in the narrow paths that wend their way between crumbling stone
buildings with tall weeds growing out of the cracks, and the quiet island of
untamed greenery surrounded on three sides by highways.
Odeh remembers a
different Lifta, with a garden next to the pool that had strawberry plants up to
his waist and neighbors who planted blooming cactuses for fences. He can still
remember how his grandfather’s house, perched up high on one side of the wadi,
served as the perfect spot for the muzzein’s call. When his grandfather called
the community to prayer five times a day, his voice would echo through the
canyon, slicing through the quiet of the sleepy agricultural
Lifta has been inhabited since the First Temple Period, and is
one of the original suburbs of Jerusalem’s Old City, along with Malha and Ein
Like many Arab homes, the houses were living beings that tended to
expand as the family grew, climbing into the hillside to three or four or five
stories. In some houses, the massive stones from the Crusader period are topped
by roughly hewn stones from the Ottoman period, and a ceiling with steel
reinforced support beams from the time of the British Mandate.
Lifta reached from Mevaseret Zion to the walls of the Old City, said Odeh, an
expansive 100,000 dunams (10,000 hectares) that was home to 3,000 people and had
600 houses. “Old Lifta” is the part that travelers on Highway 1 see upon
entering the capital, though there are still a few original Lifta houses near
the Hyatt hotel in Sheikh Jarrah.
A quarter of Lifta’s land was terraces
of fruit trees, and there was 1,500 dunams of olive trees. “Olives were like
petrol today,” said Odeh. The village’s olive presses, which are still intact
and visible, as well as the proximity to the major commercial center of the Old
City, made the village one of the wealthiest in the area.
of the original nearly 3,000 residents of Lifta now number more than 20,000 and
have spread to locations across east Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan and
Odeh lives in the French Hill neighborhood with his family,
though he visits Lifta nearly every week.
For Odeh, the question of
Lifta’s development is political: It should return to the Palestinian refugees,
many of who added the suffix al-Liftawi to their names to denote their
connection to the land.
“We are in a campaign to prevent project 6063, to
build 212 villas and a hotel and a museum,” he said. “To change Lifta for a
colonial resort means to remove it, not to preserve the houses you used to
“My memories and my history are linked to Lifta and these houses,
the graveyards and the spring water... All of these things are my memories and
I’ll never forget them. And I also teach my kids that Lifta was an eyewitness
for the Nakba [the “disaster” in 1948] and an eyewitness for history,” he
A coalition of activist groups has formed to save the
Rabbis for Human Rights, Jafra and Zochrot, a Tel Avivbased NGO
whose aim is to promote awareness of the Palestinian Nakba, are leading monthly
tours of the site to raise awareness about the possible loss of the last
Palestinian village left unchanged from before 1948.
“It’s going to be a
terrible message for the Palestinians and the world that basically we’re
continuing what we started in ’48,” Eitan Bronstein, spokesman for Zochrot, said
when the tender was announced in January.
Both the Society for the
Protection of Nature in Israel and the Council for the Preservation of Historic
Sites favor the development of Lifta.
Isaac Shweky, the director of the
council, takes a pragmatic approach to Lifta’s development: The site is in
desperate need of repair, and if nothing is done it will continue to crumble
away and eventually be reduced to nothing, as the weeds and vandals reclaim all
54 of the remaining structures. The cost to preserve the buildings would be
astronomical, in the hundreds of millions of shekels. The only way to fund the
preservation of the buildings, he believes, is to develop the site
“Every day that goes by the buildings are being destroyed
as time takes its toll,” he said.
“There are a lot of people who are
totally against the project. They want this to be Macchu Picchu of
‘occupied Arab lands.’ They want everyone to see how an Arab village used to be,
but that isn’t true, what you see today is just what’s left,” said Shweky,
pointing out that the 300 plus homes in the wadi next to Highway 1 have been
whittled down to just 54.
Empty buildings fall apart with time, he said,
and what nature doesn’t reclaim, vandals will.
Nearly all of the ornate
metalwork has been stolen from the homes, and squatters have destroyed the
traditionally decorated tiled floors.
Wall paintings are covered by
graffiti, as are many of the buildings.
Shay Farkash, a Lod-based expert
in uncovering wall paintings from old, ruined buildings, was astounded by the
number of homes where he could uncover wall paintings and stencils in Lifta.
“This is one of the best preserved domes I’ve seen,” he said, using a special
scraper to remove decades of grime in a small prayer room that is now home to a
squatter, who was absent at the time.
“Lifta is one of the last places
like it... It’s a magical corner of Jerusalem,” he said. Like Shweky, Farkash
agreed that paying the enormous costs of restoration would only be possible
through commercial development.
The high cost of preservation, which is
much more expensive than building a new home from scratch, means the 212
apartments will be very expensive, out of reach of most Israelis. The complex
runs the risk of becoming a “ghost town” owned by foreigners who use the
apartments once or twice a year. But the construction of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv
high speed train may dampen the uniqueness of the future luxury village, with
several trains an hour rushing in and out of tunnels dug deep into the rolling
hills next to Highway 1.
Both activists and preservationists seem
resigned to the fact that some kind of building is inevitable.
said that he preferred that the construction be done now, in a carefully planned
way, rather than keeping the site empty and run the risk of having it
haphazardly developed in 50 or 60 years when Jerusalem completely runs out of
In the quietness of Lifta on a Friday morning, the rush
of the highway traffic is barely audible over the chirping of birds and the
sound of the wind through the grass. It’s difficult to picture trains, or luxury
apartments, or anything but the silent stone buildings that have stood witness
to war and bloodshed and difficult chapters of history.
Standing next to
the pool, Odeh points towards a house 20 meters up the hillside.
was the house of Hashan Ali Bedeem,” he recalled. “This house was filled with
flowers, beautiful flowers all up the stairs. We would try to steal the flowers,
but his mother would catch us,” Odeh laughed. “She would say to us ‘kids, okay,
go on, you can smell it [on the vine]. But if you cut it off, then what
will you have tomorrow?’”
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