Lifta – Game over

What has been decided for the fate of disputed Jerusalem neighborhood Lifta?

A house in Lifta is demolished last Thursday to make way for Highway 1 (photo credit: YONI YOCHANAN)
A house in Lifta is demolished last Thursday to make way for Highway 1
(photo credit: YONI YOCHANAN)
Ten years of persistent struggle by a small group of dedicated residents facing a powerful establishment – as well as mighty financial interests – have finally resulted in an acceptable solution. Within the next few weeks, all the families still living in Lifta, located at the entry to Jerusalem, beneath Highway 1, will leave the picturesque village-neighborhood and start a new life elsewhere.
Quite a few people have been involved in this long and painful struggle, but all agree that at least some kudos belongs to MK David Amsalem (Likud), head of the Knesset Commission and proud Jerusalemite, who contributed a lot toward finding a solution.
Lifta was first mentioned in the Mishna. Over the centuries, it went through all the historical developments of the region under various and successive dominations. Until 1948 it was an Arab village, whose residents left after the War of Independence, while a small group continued to visit the place and teach the memory of their past to the next generation. In the following years, which brought waves of immigrants from Arab countries to the newly established State of Israel, Lifta, with its large houses, became an ideal locale to shelter those families. Despite very harsh living conditions, they established themselves in houses that had no running water or electricity, some in crumbling houses that had seen better days and were no longer fit to live in.
Lifta’s beautiful landscape and architecture have made it a highly appreciated site for preservation. In fact, the entire village is a candidate to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is already considered as preserved by the local authorities.
For the past few years, the Construction and Housing Ministry and the Israel Lands Authority had been eyeing the great real estate potential of this location. Therefore, they considered the residents a deterrent to their development plans.
A first attempt to “free” the area was done in the early 1970s with the evacuation of 285 families, who were offered little compensation and had to move to small, dismal apartments in the city. This served as an example for the remaining 13 families, who refused to leave Lifta, despite all the pressure and poor living conditions.
In 2007, the ILA decided to promote a construction project for luxury residences and began sending the remaining families letters instructing them to leave immediately. It is worth noting that the plan was promoted despite the opposition of Mayor Nir Barkat and the city council, who believed that the whole area should be maintained as a nature reserve.
But since 2015, a new issue arose with the project to expand Highway 1, which necessitated using parts of Lifta. This time the remaining families received threatening letters from the municipality, warning them that they were now considered intruders and had to leave immediately.
The struggle of the 13 remaining families took a new turn. They asked to be recognized as legitimate residents, part of the pioneering period of the first years of the state, and thus be entitled to their rights and certainly not be regarded as intruders.
“However, the families’ needs and rights continued to be ignored,” says Yoni Yochanan, who led the struggle for most of those years, “until we reached MK Dudi Amsalem. Realizing that nothing was moving forward, he submitted a bill to the Knesset, and hence literally forced the establishment to listen to our plea and do something.”
Then the negotiations began. They ended up with acceptable compensation. It included 70% of the value of the houses in Lifta, in addition to special compensation for the years of struggle and grief. Overall, it enabled the 13 families to purchase decent housing in Jerusalem.
“I have decided to move to Ramot, so that every day on my way to work I can see the house in which I grew up, where I and my nine brothers and sisters shared two rooms,“ says Yochanan. “And today I see my four children, who are two in a room, and they complain about it. I don’t recall ever complaining about sharing a room with all my siblings, but those were other times.”
The work on Highway 1 has already begun, the residents have all left Lifta, and what remains to be seen is what will happen to this local gem. Will it become another luxury ghost neighborhood or, as Barak promised, a preserved jewel for all to enjoy?