In the golden light of a spring evening, as yellow flowers are beginning to bloom on giant cactuses, Yacoub Odeh climbs through knee-high grass to the ruin that was his childhood home.
For a man in his 80s he is surprisingly nimble as he navigates the ancient stones littering the ground.But behind his light step is the weight of painful memories of a lost youth and a fading history.
‘Here’s my house,” he said, sitting on the remains of a stone wall in which wild flowers and saplings cling to the crevices. ‘Now only the corners remain. Here is the taboun [outdoor oven] where my mother baked bread.”
With distant eyes, he described an idyllic childhood where families helped one another and children played amid almond and fig trees and on the rocks around the village’s natural spring.
This is Lifta, an Arab village on the northwestern fringes of Jerusalem, for centuries a bustling community built around agriculture, traditional embroidery and trade. But since 1948, shortly before the state of Israel was declared, it has been deserted. The population, according to the Palestinian narrative of that momentous year, was expelled by advancing Jewish soldiers; the people abandoned their homes, say Israeli history books.
Lifta was one of hundreds of Arab villages taken over by the embryonic Jewish state. But it is the only one not to have been covered by the concrete and tarmac of Israeli towns and roads, or planted over with trees and shrubs to create forests, parks and picnic areas—or transformed into Israeli artists’ colonies. Some argue that Israel set out to erase any vestige of Palestinian roots in the new country.
Now, 63 years on, the ruins of Lifta are facing the threat of bulldozers and concrete mixers. A long-term proposal to sell the state-owned land for the construction of luxury housing units and a boutique hotel is awaiting the authorities’ final approval.
The plan has caused a furore. Opponents include those who believe Lifta should be preserved as a monument to history and want to retain it as a rambling spot, and those, including Odeh, who insist that one day they will return and reclaim their homes.
For many Palestinians Lifta is a symbol of the Nakba, the ‘catastrophe” of 1948, in which 700 000 people were dispossessed. It embodies their longing for their land and their bitterness over their refugee status. It is, wrote Palestinian author Ghada Karmi in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, ‘a physical memory of injustice and survival”.
The Jerusalem municipality approved the development plan five years ago but this year the Israel Lands Administration, which took over Lifta’s land under the Israeli law governing property deemed to be abandoned, began marketing the plot to private developers.
A legal challenge stayed the tender but a decision is due soon on whether to proceed. The proposal is for 212 luxury housing units (expected to be advertised to wealthy expatriate Jews), a chic hotel, shops and a museum. It suggests that some of the ruins should be restored. But Lifta as a heritage site will be lost.
Shmuel Groag, one of the architects of the original proposal, now backs the campaign to preserve the ruined village. ‘I’ve changed my mind about conservation in general and about Lifta in particular,” he said.
Others have asked Unesco to declare Lifta a world heritage site, halting further decay and theft of valuable stones from the ruins, which are frequented by ramblers, drug-users and illicit lovers. Crowds of ultra-orthodox Jewish teenage boys, stripped to their underwear, swim in the spring and have barbecues on the rocks. Graffiti scars the fragmented walls.
‘When I see these people coming here, I feel sorrow and anger,” Odeh said. ‘Why should they have free access to my home when security guards stop me and question me about my right to be here?”
The village is bounded by roads, along which traffic rumbles to and from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s suburbs and settlements. On the ridge above, concrete mixers and diggers work on a high-speed rail link to Tel Aviv. Deep in the valley below is a guarded complex, said to be the Israeli government’s underground nuclear bunker.
Out of sight, but built on Lifta’s former farmlands, are the Knesset, supreme court, Hadassah hospital, Hebrew University and Jerusalem’s central bus station.
The 1 200 hectares the village owned in 1948 have long gone, and with them the olive, fig, apricot, almond, plum, pomegranate and citrus trees and fields of spinach, cauliflower, peas and beans.
‘Life was rich,” said Odeh. ‘The spring watered the village gardens. We had more olives than we needed so we sold them and the oil in Jerusalem. ‘Here was the mosque. This was the sheriff’s house. Here was the olive press. Here’s the house where I and my father were born. There’s the cemetery. This was the sahn [courtyard] where people shared happy and sorrowful occasions. Here I breathed my first breath. The first water I drank, I drank here.”
Odeh pointed out what remains of the houses, with their arched windows, columns and graceful balconies. Over a door, Arabic writing inscribed on a lintel says, ‘Enter in safety; the owner of this house is God”.
‘The people of the village cut the stones and built their houses themselves. They were proud of that. They helped one another build and harvest the olives. They lived as one family.”
In 1948, when Odeh was eight years old, the bucolic life of Lifta came to an end. At the gateway to Jerusalem, it was strategically important to advancing Jewish troops. A series of violent skirmishes caused panic, he said, with firing from both sides. And then came the day his family left.
‘My mother was preparing a fire to warm the house. I was with my little brother. The gangs began to shoot in the direction of Lifta. My brother shouted: ‘Mama! They’re shooting us.’ My mother took us inside and put us in a corner. The people were crying out to one another.”
Odeh’s father, then 33, carried the youngest of the eight children, and the family crossed the valley to the main Jerusalem road. His mother took the key to the house, but they left everything they owned.
‘We had nothing but the clothes we were wearing. We had everything—and in one moment we became beggars.” As the villagers left, he said Jewish soldiers blew holes in the roofs of the houses to make them uninhabitable.
The family spent the following two years in Ramallah before moving to Jerusalem’s Old City. His father developed stomach problems and died at the age of 35. His mother suffered from asthma from when she left Lifta until her death.
Many of Lifta’s 3 000 residents scattered across the West Bank and beyond to Jordan, but a core still live in East Jerusalem. Odeh himself later joined the armed resistance against Israel and spent 17 years in prison.
‘We will never forget or forgive the destruction of our village. Lifta is in our memory and in our history,” he said with passionate intensity. ‘It is our fathers’ and grandfathers’ graveyard. ‘I’m sure the time will come to return to my home.”—