Boutique hotel to open in the abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta

Guests will be provided with a gourmet breakfast prepared by a catering company in the capital.

PHASE II of the Lifta Boutique Hotel will include 15 more rooms and a restaurant (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
PHASE II of the Lifta Boutique Hotel will include 15 more rooms and a restaurant
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Notwithstanding that in 2017 Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority (NPA) declared the abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta to be the Mei Neftoach Nature Reserve, a boutique hotel is about to open there after Passover in a newly-restored centuries-old building – one of the handful of the 75 or so stone buildings dotting the picturesque hillside which are still inhabited.
Called the Lifta Boutique Hotel, the auberge at the end of a dead-end road offers a degree of luxury to which few inns in Israel can compare. A labor of love created by Oded and Yoni Yochanan, the two restored a dilapidated structure in danger of collapse into a hotel featuring four 50 sq. m. suites, as well as two holiday apartments reserved for the co-owners. The swimming pool and terrace are positioned to maximize the panoramic view of the Judean Hills and the Arazim Valley, called Wadi Salman in Arabic.
Guests will be provided with a gourmet breakfast prepared by a catering company in the capital, said Oded Yochanan. The brothers plan to add 18 rooms in two more ruined buildings they own nearby. Phase II will include a dining room and restaurant, he added.
Privacy doesn’t come cheap. The Lifta Boutique will be charging NIS 3,200 on weekends, and NIS 2,700 on weeknights, Yochanan said. The view is priceless. Though signposted, he recommends entering “Lifta Boutique” into Waze to navigate Lifta’s warren of back roads and hiking trails.
Asked how much they’ve invested, apart from sweat equity, Yochanan shrugged and answered vaguely, “a lot.”
The abandoned Arab village has been identified with the biblical Nephtoah and its spring is mentioned in the Book of Joshua as delineating the northern border of the tribe of Judah: “The outcome of the lottery for the tribe of the Children of Judah.... The border proceeded directly from the top of the mountain to the spring of Mei Neftoach and broadened to the cities of Mount Ephron.” (Joshua 15:9).
Ruins have been found here dating to the First Temple period. While inhabited in the Roman, Byzantine and Crusader periods, the extensive remains visible today mostly date from the late Ottoman and Mandate times. They include several olive oil presses, a mosque and maqam (Islamic shrine) honoring Seif ad-Din – one of the mujahadeen who fought with Saladin.
The scores of stone buildings scattered across the steeply sloping site feature groin vaults, a vernacular echo of Jerusalem’s Crusader architecture that allows roofs to be erected without timber rafters. The center of the ruined village was the spring, today landscaped as a popular swimming hole turned mikve.
During the British Mandate, agricultural Lifta prospered as Jerusalem grew. Some villagers sold land to Jews that became the neighborhood of Romema. A primary school was built – which after 1948 became the Nachshon School, and today is the Talmud Torah Mishkan Betzalel.
The strategic village became a battleground following the United Nations’ November 29, 1947 vote to partition Palestine. Villagers took up arms to ambush armored convoys snaking up the narrow road from Tel Aviv. After repeated defeats involving the loss of life and materiel, the Hagana changed strategy and began conquering the Arab villages in order to drive off the guerillas. The 2,548 Liftawis began abandoning their village but each family posted an armed guard to protect their property. They too fled after the massacre at nearby village Deir Yassin, today the site of Herzog Hospital, on April 9, 1948.
THE LIFTA SPRING is a popular swimming hole-cum-mikveh. (Gil Zohar)THE LIFTA SPRING is a popular swimming hole-cum-mikveh. (Gil Zohar)
ISRAELI HISTORIAN Benny Morris writes the battle for Lifta began in December 1947 when the Hagana killed the Palestinian owner of the gas station in Romema who they suspected was gathering intelligence about the departure of Jewish convoys to Tel Aviv. The next day, a grenade was thrown in revenge at a Jewish bus.
Palestinian historian ‘Arif al-‘Arif adds six Arabs were killed in an attack on December 28 when Lehi fighters halted a bus outside Lifta’s coffeehouse, sprayed the patrons with machine-gun fire and threw grenades.
In the neighboring village of Sheikh Badr, today the site of the Knesset, the Hagana blew up the mukhtar’s house on January 11. Two days later, they launched a second raid in which 20 houses were damaged. One by one, most houses on the eastern edge of Lifta were dynamited.
The terrorist attacks helped achieve their military objective of lifting the siege of Jerusalem during the War of Independence and clearing the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. By February 7, 1948, Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion expressed his satisfaction with the results of the attacks at a meeting of Mapai party leaders: “From your entry into Jerusalem through Lifta – Romema, through Mahaneh Yehuda, King George Street and Mea She’arim – there are no strangers. One hundred percent Jews.”
After independence, the nascent state seized the 700 depopulated Arab villages like Lifta. Taken over by the Israel Lands Administration under the Absentees’ Property Law, 5710-1950, most of the villages were bulldozed and their lands redistributed to kibbutzim, moshavim and new Israeli settlements. However, the deserted houses of Lifta were left untouched, perhaps because of the difficulty of clearing the hillside and its location near the 1949 armistice line. Jewish refugees from Yemen and Kurdistan who had been forced from their countries moved into the buildings. 
But living conditions – without running water or electricity – were difficult and many left the hillside hamlet. Over time, drug addicts moved into the abandoned buildings, which were then deliberately vandalized by the Israel Police to discourage squatters, leading to further crumbling.
In 2004, plans were drawn up to build new housing and renovate the old stone buildings into luxury villas. Those plans, drawn up before Israel’s current strict rules were put in place protecting historical sites, were opposed by a coalition of archaeologists, architects and representatives of the descendants of the original Palestinian residents. In 2012, the court revoked the building tender and ordered the Antiquities Authority (IAA) to survey the village’s ruins.
Meanwhile, some of the Jewish residents of Lifta, who were settled there by the Jewish Agency in the 1950s but never received property rights, were ordered expelled without compensation to facilitate the widening of Highway 1.
Yoni Yochanan, today the co-owner of the Lifta Boutique Hotel, was then one of the neighborhood residents who opposed the ILA’s construction plans and led the campaign against the eviction. Sorting through archival documents from the 1950s, he proved that his parents weren’t squatters, and that the state had been remiss by not offering Lifta’s Jewish families an opportunity to purchase their homes.
His research resulted in an expropriation compensation 2017 agreement between the state and the remaining Jewish Lifta families.
Yochanan argued Lifta should be preserved for future generations, and was pleased with the 2017 decision turning the area into a park.
“This village has history for Arabs, for Jews... All of the history in that place, you can do something nice for the youth, and to teach what was there,” he said.