Jerusalem freezes plan to build luxury villas on ancient village
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'I don't want a castle for the rich. I want an open place'

Jerusalem freezes plan to build luxury villas on ancient village

Opponents of construction in Lifta say theirs is only a temporary victory, as city hall is keen to push plan forward

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

An old house is seen in the Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)
An old house is seen in the Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

A controversial plan to build luxury real estate in Lifta, a remarkably kept historic village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, has been frozen, but opponents say the plan isn’t dead yet as it enjoys the backing of senior officials in city hall.

The plan was taken off the agenda after the city’s local planning committee chairman Meir Turgeman, who supports it, realized it was strongly opposed by a majority of the committee’s members during a hearing on the subject on August 9, according to records of the meeting and a member of the committee who spoke to The Times of Israel.

Following the August 9 meeting, the Jerusalem Municipality released a statement saying, “The plan was dropped from the agenda in order to undergo another professional examination. Once this examination is completed, it will be re-discussed by the Local Planning and Building Committee.”

The main reason for opposition to the plan by committee members was that it calls for some 200 high-cost villas to be built in the historically important landscape, rather than low-cost housing that could accommodate thousands in the congested capital.

Israelis cool off at Lifta Spring in Jerusalem on April 26, 2016, as temperatures hit 40 degrees in some parts of the country. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis cool off at Lifta Spring in Jerusalem on April 26, 2016, as temperatures hit 40 degrees in some parts of the country. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One source familiar with discussions of the plan, who wished to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the subject, said that “the mayor and the people who work for the mayor are really determined to make this thing happen.”

The source said proponents of the plan are considering “how to make this site more profitable for the city.”

An old olive press in Lifta, an abandonded Palestinian Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. December 17, 2016. The city of Jerusalem plans to build villas and a shopping mall over the old village. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90
An old olive press in Lifta, an abandonded Palestinian Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. December 17, 2016. The city of Jerusalem plans to build villas and a shopping mall over the old village. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

The construction of the new neighborhood in Lifta was meant to begin years ago. But in 2012, opponents of the plan, including former residents and their descendants, Israeli academics, architects, members of the Society for the Protection of Nature, and recently expelled Jewish residents of Lifta, managed to win a temporary reprieve. The court revoked the building tender and ordered the Israeli Antiquities Authority IAA to conduct a thorough survey of the village.

The IAA proceeded to carry out what Avi Mashiach, the conservation architect who led the survey, said in a statement to the Haaretz daily “was the biggest, most complex and important survey ever carried out by the Antiquities Authority.” It ended last December.

The archaeologists found evidence of settlement in the site dating back thousands of years to the First Temple period, and were able, with the help of former Palestinian residents, to completely map out the evolution of the current village from a crusader farmhouse to a warren of connected buildings perched on the hills overlooking the valley.

Nevertheless, after the survey, the Jerusalem municipality continued to back the plan for housing at the site, which it said, in a statement to The Times of Israel, would be revised to take the results of the archaeological survey into account. However, whatever revisions it planned were not made available to the public. The IAA survey of Lifta has also not been made available to the public.

Mashiach and the coalition of opposition activists argued that no amount of careful planning could do justice to Lifta.

Lifta from the Western entrance to Jerusalem, with Mitzpeh Naftoah sloping down from the Ramot neighborhood in the background (Wikimedia Commons/יעקב, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Lifta from the Western entrance to Jerusalem, with Mitzpeh Naftoah sloping down from the Ramot neighborhood in the background (Wikimedia Commons/יעקב, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ilan Shtayer, one of the leaders of the coalition opposing the Lifta plan, said, “We need to be sure that professionals and people making the decisions understand that this plan is dead. There are people who are trying to make it happen.”

He argued that during the IAA review there were no underground excavations, and there could perhaps be “another 2,000 years of history underground.”

Yoav Yeivin, a member of the local planning committee and a Jerusalem city council member for the Hitorerut party, said he voted against the plan because “we don’t need 200 villas to ruin one of the most historical sites in Israel.”

Yoav Yeivin, Jerusalem city council member for 'Wake-Up movement.' He has taken up the issues of East Jerusalem on his own accord. (Courtesy)
Yoav Yeivin, Jerusalem city council member for ‘Hitorerut movement.’ He has taken up the issues of East Jerusalem on his own accord. (Courtesy)

“I don’t want a castle for a few rich people. I want an open place for the public,” he added.

Yeivin said he understood city hall’s desire to continue developing Jerusalem, and said he would vote for a plan that renewed the site “intelligently.”

He recommended turning the village into a tourist site, similar to sites in Italy, by adding a few hotels and restaurants while maintaining and restoring the archaeological remains.

The buildings at the site are in a state of disrepair, and many are in danger of collapsing. All sides agree that urgent action is needed to protect the history of the site.

During the 1948 War of Independence, Lifta, due to its strategic location at the entrance to Jerusalem, was quickly enveloped in the battle. When the war was over, Lifta was empty, and it is a matter of historical debate whether the villagers had fled or were forced out.

Since that time, most of the village has remained untouched and neglected.

Today, Lifta is on the list of UNESCO’s tentative world heritage sites for bearing “unique testimony of the traditional village life.”

Thousands of the Palestinian inhabitants of Lifta and their descendants continue to visit the village every year, and say they plan to return one day to live there.

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