As you approach Jerusalem on the main highway from Tel Aviv, Lifta stands like a ghost town on the hillside. It is a prominent reminder of the Naqba[i] which saw the residents of many Palestinian villages scared away from their homes during 1947-1948.
Lifta is unique in that many of the original houses are still standing. Of the estimated 600 villages that were de-populated of their Palestinian residents during this time, most were destroyed altogether, or like Ein Karem and Ein Hod, were re-populated with Jewish families.
On Saturday we took a guided walking tour of Lifta along with a group of friends. The first striking thing was that our meeting point was a petrol station near to the central bus station in Jerusalem. We had been to Lifta several times before and it always involved a short motorway journey that gave the impression of leaving the city behind. We were told that the reality was that Lifta used to extend much further into the city centre, and it had only been a short distance for locals to bring their produce for sale at the Machane Yehuda market.
Tucked in behind the main road, an unmarked path weaved its way down the steep hillside towards the abandoned village. Tall cactus plants, fig trees and green almond trees lined the scenic route. We had heard before that where you see cactus plants, there was a very high chance that Palestinians used to live there and often the cactus plants were the only remaining sign of this.
At the bottom of the path, we came to the freshwater spring which fed three pools. Our guide, Umar told us that the water used to be fairly channelled between the different family plots of land, similar to the system which is famous in Battir. The freshwater pools each had defined roles in cleaning people, houses and then animals in that order of priority. These days the spring was a popular bathing spot in the summer and several families, both Jewish and Muslim had gathered that day with picnics. On a cloudy Saturday at the start of April, no one was brave enough to dive in yet.
Walking on we came to the mosque which is believed to have stood on this spot since the thirteenth Century with links back to Salah Ad-Din’s army. Some graffiti marked the walls and there was broken glass where an art project had been attempted. Umar said that it was now a site of frequent parties and he was visibly moved by the desecration of this holy site commenting that the ‘situation is really painful of a holy place’.
We moved on to see an olive press building which was high-ceilinged with, arched windows. Umar told us that there were several olive presses in the village and that this indicated a prosperous community. By all accounts, life sounded pretty good before the events of 1947 and 48 unfolded.
So, what happened during that momentous year? The Jewish narrative around many events of 1948 is that the Palestinian families voluntarily left their houses. In explaining how the events of 1947 and 1948 unfolded in Lifta, Umar stressed that it was a gradual expulsion. First one person was murdered, then a coffee shop was attacked, killing six people. Every week or so there would be fresh attacks where people were shot at by Zionist militia forces. Families didn’t feel safe anymore and some people started to leave, mainly for East Jerusalem or Ramallah. Every family kept one young man in their house to protect it and, lowering his eyes, Umar said, ‘the result was very sad and they didn’t manage’.
For many residents of Lifta, the final straw came on 9th April 1948 when the village of Deir Yassin, a short distance away across the hillside from Lifta, was violently attacked by Zionist paramilitary groups and over a hundred people were killed. The 73rd anniversary of the massacre takes place this week. Terror spread across Palestinian villages and Umar explained that the mentality was very much one of ‘we will not wait for our massacre’. Another striking thing is that all of these events preceded the creation of Israel in May 1948.
But why didn’t Lifta suffer the same fate as the other Palestinian villages that were destroyed? There are several possible reasons for this. Initially the large and attractive houses served a useful purpose in housing Jewish immigrants. Ownership of the houses was never transferred to these families however and many of them accepted the offer of better accommodation in the early 1970s. By this time many of the Lifta houses were in need of repair and renovation.
Perhaps by this stage a total demolition of Lifta would have been controversial and instead round holes were drilled in the rooves of the houses to make them uninhabitable to illegal squatters. It is thought the real intention was for the houses to collapse (built as they were around a central ceiling stone), but quality Palestinian craftmanship meant many are still standing today and can be entered despite over forty years of exposure to the elements.
I hadn’t considered before that leaving Lifta untouched might serve to reinforce the narrative that Palestinians voluntarily left their homes and that these were not destroyed by the Israeli state and could be visited today.
For years now, Lifta has remained abandoned with the only changes being new acts of vandalism and the constant creep of vegetation around the homes. For many it is a painful symbol of the Palestinian cause. Change in afoot however, and a new sign now points to the Lifta Boutique hotel. This is a luxury venture which will charge exorbitant rates for its location and facilities. We wondered what story they would tell their guests about the history of the village and the reason for its abandonment. Several plans have emerged over the years to clear the village and build a new neighbourhood, but these have always faced strong opposition. The future of Lifta remains uncertain but the hotel is perhaps an ominous sign that further development is inevitable.
We organised our tour through an organisation called Zochrot. They work to raise awareness about all of the Palestinian villages that were destroyed or abandoned. To arrange a tour, you can contact Umar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] A Palestinian word which means ‘catastrophe’, used to describe the events of 1947-48 where many thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their houses during the creation of the state of Israel.