Reclaiming Lifta

The fate of a desolate Arab village hangs in the balance.

Lifta (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
For six years a proposal has been lying dormant in the planning department at Kikar Safra.
Plan 6036 was approved in 2005 to develop the land in Lifta, a deserted Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The planning maps and documents are kept in a large gray cardboard box.
There are a dozen of them printed on laminated poster-size sheets, detailing all aspects of the 212 luxury homes that the architects envision being built at the site. The plans incorporate the vestiges of the village, which include 55 historic buildings, preserving their facades and incorporating them into the new homes that will all be perched on the hillside overlooking the spring and stream below. The famous spring will be left intact.
Lifta is an exceptional environment, an entire ruined Arab village being reclaimed, slowly, by nature. For years Lifta was an oddity, clinging precariously to the hillsides near Route 1 that leads to Jerusalem. It became a hiking spot, a mikve for haredi youth and a hangout for drug users who sometimes squatted in the abandoned buildings.
The latest plans for Lifta were drawn up by architects Shlomo Aronson, Kobi Kartes and Shmuel Groag. Aronson was born in Haifa in 1936 and studied at the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard. An influential landscape architect, he has designed projects such as the new American Consulate and portions of Beit Guvrin archeological park, and he is the author of Making Peace with Land: Designing Israel’s Landscape.
Itzik Schweky, director of the Jerusalem district of the Council for the Preservation of Historic Sites, contends that the plan is a good one. “The plan now is better than what was… Without active preservation, the rocks will continue to be stolen, the building slowly degraded and ruined by visitors.”
But not everyone is so upbeat. Eitan Bronstein, spokesman for Zochrot, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of Arab villages in Israel, is up in arms. “It looks like they mean business this time.
Soon they will destroy Lifta… The destruction plan – it shouldn’t be called a preservation or development plan – will not only ruin the landscape but also the memory of the place.”
Bronstein believes that the plan is not an innocent isolated case but part of a larger drama. “This is a message to the world that Israel has no interest in reconciliation… It is destroying relations with the Palestinians.”
He argues that the village should be redesigned along the lines of what has been called a “symbol of a shared future.” This would include cooperation with the descendants of the Palestinian families who once lived there, building a museum about them and transforming the site into a place with boutique hotels and where “Jewish and Arab high school and university students visit as part of their civics courses, studying the Palestinian narrative in local history.”
Bronstein adds, “We suggest [for now] not to touch it. We think it could be rebuilt for the refugees.”
Yacoub Odeh, a Palestinian human rights activist involved in the struggle for land and housing, recalls growing up in Lifta. “I remember exactly my classroom in the school. You entered from the west, and there was a big olive garden and rocks, and we used to play on them all the way home.”
Odeh was born in 1940 in Lifta, in the house closest to the spring. In 1947, after several villagers were killed in the initial stages of the war, he fled with the rest of the villagers. He worked in Kuwait for several years, and in east Jerusalem he was a teacher before 1967. “There were more than 3,000 of us in 1948; now we are more than 35,000 and we have charitable organizations in Jerusalem and Amman. Just in Jerusalem there are at least 5,000 of us living here with blue ID [Israeli] cards.”
Odeh is determined in his efforts to preserve the memory of his village and return to it. He visits as often as he can, sometimes two or three times a month. He is insistent on pointing out the injustice and ironies of the situation. “The village that was not destroyed in the time of war should not be destroyed in a time of peace… To build on it means to destroy it. No one has the authority to sell its land nor to demolish, not to build on it. Leave it for the time being until the goal of return is realized.”
But what if the people from Lifta got together and bought the plots currently being sold under the plan, like Basher al-Masri wanted to do at Nof Zion? Odeh says that he would not consider purchasing his own house back.
Avi Margolin, a licensed tour guide, has frequented the site for seven years and is passionate about Lifta.
Sporting an Australian bush hat, he surveys Lifta from the pedestrian walkway that crosses Route 1. “It is a nice place to go, except that it attracts a very haredi crowd, unlike the other springs in the Jerusalem area. In terms of its natural beauty, it is hard to beat.
If they develop it as an Ein Kerem type place, the character of the spring will change. It won’t be a relaxing place to go, to bathe and barbecue.”
He says, “The city should focus its energy on keeping the place clean and enforcing the law there to make it a more family-friendly environment. They should develop the trails around it and encourage people to go there. The last thing they need to do is put luxury houses there. It is better to develop it like a nature reserve like at Ein Yael [near the Jerusalem Zoo].”
Architecture researcher Michal Moshe did her MA thesis, entitled “Pattern of the Arab Village in the Judean Hills: Lifta Case Study,” at the Hebrew University in 2000. Her main concern with the project is the depth of the preservation. “There is no way to preserve something without understanding how it was used. Architects look at the details; but if they don’t investigate the how, it won’t be authentic but only an artificial preservation.”
For instance, “There are some buildings there that are ruined but were constructed in the 18th century.
They should try to reconstruct and use the older stones of these buildings so the preservation also shows the village in its stages,” not merely the most well-preserved newer homes.
Lifta is a story that reminds one of Mark Twain’s witticism: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” A March 2000 report by the pro- Palestinian Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem claimed, “Israel destroys Lifta artifacts to build a resort for wealthy Jewish immigrants.” The latest plan is not the first one to develop Lifta. The question is whether it will be the last.