One village, two stories

Two narratives continued to live on – the story of the few former olim who settled and refused to leave, and on the other side, a few Palestinians who were born there and grew up in the village.

Lifta (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Lifta is a village situated on the slopes climbing up to Jerusalem. The village has ancient roots and is mentioned in the Mishna. More recently it was inhabited for decades by Palestinians, until many left following the War of Independence in 1948. Immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel, large waves of newcomers, mostly from Arab countries, were sent there to find a new home.
Like in Old Katamon and Baka and other places, Lifta became Jewish as olim managed to rebuild demolished homes for their families. Over the years, many of these families decided to leave the pastoral slopes of Lifta – which are isolated and hard to reach – for other places.
Some families, however, remained tied to the place and refused to consider other options, while most of the village, once again, turned into ruins. The beautifully restored homes became a refuge for people seeking a remote place to live different kinds of lives. Drug addicts, alcoholics, youth at risk and homeless people found a refuge in the abandoned part of the village. These were years (’80s and ’90s) when Lifta was known as a risky place, a place people would normally avoid.
But during all these years, two narratives continued to live on – the story of the few former olim who settled and refused to leave, and on the other side, a few Palestinians who were born there and grew up in the village before 1948, and continued to visit their old homes – or what was left of them – and to tell their stories to the next generations.
Until recently, the two narratives seemed incompatible. Then a change came with the growing interest of real-estate developers who realized the potential of Lifta’s picturesque and unique location. At the same time, others who took an interest in the village were in the establishment – the Housing Ministry, Interior Ministry, and the Jerusalem municipality.
The awareness that this unique place could fall into the hands of contractors and promoters, and become part of another exclusive housing project, far from the needs of the young generation of Jerusalemites, raised anger and concern among environment activists and students and teachers in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s Urban Planning Department, and, of course, among the families still living there, who realized that if implemented, development projects could result in their eviction.
Recently, those who have taken an interest in preserving Lifta have managed to raise lot of awareness about the rights of the 12 families still living there. Last week, a joint initiative of Bezalel, Heritage Committee of ICOMOS Israel, in cooperation with the Graduate Program in Urban Design and the Architecture Department at Bezalel held an open conference on the various aspects of the matter – tradition, urban and landscape heritage and needs of Lifta residents. The conference included a guided tour of the village, and speakers on behalf of all parties presented the public with the facts on the ground and the most urgent needs in order to preserve the villages.
Meanwhile, at least the situation of the Jerusalemite families still living there has been improved, after the Housing Ministry, together with the Interior Ministry, reached an agreement regarding their right to remain there. The agreement among the ministries is that the people who were sent there by the government when they arrived as olim cannot be considered today as intruders or squatters with no rights. Part of the agreement hasn’t yet been published, but it seems that the struggle of the residents, led relentlessly by Yoni Yonatan, has proved successful. As for the Palestinian narrative of the former residents, they continue, with Yakub Odeh, who was born there, to come to visit and learn about their past.