Plans for Lifta luxury housing project temporarily halted

Activists want to finish historical surveys before developers buy land.

Lifta (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
A planned luxury housing complex in the historic Arab village of Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem was temporarily halted on Monday after the Jerusalem District Court ordered the Israel Lands Authority ordered to freeze the published tenders.
A coalition of architects, activists, and former Lifta residents petitioned the courts to halt the project until archeological surveys are finished.
The project, which was approved by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Interior Ministry’s planning committees, calls for 212 luxury apartment villas, a hotel, and a network of roads and infrastructure to support the new neighborhood.
In January, the ILA published a tender for the project, which allows private contractors to bid.
The scenic area is famous for the old stone buildings that are visible from the western entrance to Jerusalem, which were built into the steep hillside by Arab residents in the 19th century.
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 the transfer of the public assets into private hands. The court granted a temporary freeze until the project goes to trial to determine if the ILA can go ahead with the bidding process.
“The problem is that the contractors are supposed to be responsible for documentation, and preservation is something that’s very far away from their interests,” said architect Shmuel Groag, a professor of architecture at Bezalel who focuses on building preservation.
Groag was part of a group of architects that had started creating a plan for the Lifta area, which has been under consideration for development for the past 20 years.
Groag added that the process of documenting the village for historical and planning purposes was never completed, though the Israel Antiquities Authority offered to document the area. The state was reluctant to pay, said Groag, and mandated that the contractor that won the bid be required to do the documentation.
“If one of the contractors destroys something inside, no one will know, because no one knows what’s inside of them,” said Groag.
“To try and take shortcuts in the planning processes in a place that’s so sensitive and emotional will no doubt damage the preservation of Lifta,” he added.
The Society for the Protection of Nature and the Society for Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites, however, said they had no opposition to the project, a popular hiking destination for Jerusalem residents.
“What’s happening now is the houses are getting destroyed by the passage of time,” said Isaac Schweky, the head of the Society for the Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites.
“[The petitioners] asked us to join but I told them I’m not going to join them. If we don’t build there, won’t be anything left,” he said.
Schweky pointed out that since the area became a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, the houses have deteriorated faster than ever. Some of the stones have been stolen, causing the buildings to crumble.
The only way to save Lifta, he believes, is to develop it.
But the petitioners claim that in addition to the environmental and historical problems the development project could create, there are political problems as well. Lifta was abandoned by its Arab residents in 1948, and is one of the only such Arab villages that was not destroyed or inhabited by Jews after the War of Independence.
“It’s an issue of how do we see our future. Do we see our future erasing the Arab side, or a future of reconciliation?” asked Daphna Golan, a lecturer at Hebrew University in human rights, who organized the various groups to file the petition.
“We should discuss these issues as opposed to erasing them. It’s part of our history, it’s part of our present. Rather than build housing for rich people, let’s keep it for future discussion for compensation.
We have to keep the past alive in order to have a dialogue.”
Attorney Sami Ershied, who filed the petition on behalf of the coalition of activists and residents, said he was “optimistic” that the courts would honor their request to halt the plan.