On a warm, sunny Friday afternoon in March, a few ultra-Orthodox students stripped down to their underwear and leaped into the algae-tinged waters of the village of Lifta.
The young yeshiva pupils were not alone in the verdant valley at the entrance to Jerusalem.
Nearly a thousand Palestinian men, women and children, some from Jerusalem, many from Ramallah, and some from as far away as Amman, were there as well for an annual gathering.
They are the Liftawis, the original occupants of the now empty village and their descendants.
The hillside hamlet was completely emptied 70 years ago during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and the occupants were never permitted to return. But in contrast to hundreds of other Arab villages that were left empty, bulldozed and subsequently built over after the war, Lifta has remained virtually untouched.
Dotted throughout the valley, some 75 stone homes, remarkably preserved, stand as moss-covered monuments to the Liftawis’ former village. This group will return again next year to remember what once was, and to declare to themselves and the world that one day they will return.
If all goes according to the plans of the Israel Land Authority and the Jerusalem Municipality, however, in a few years’ time the Liftawis will be returning not to a time capsule of the life they lost, but rather to luxury apartment complexes, a hotel, and an upscale commercial and business center, with some activists claiming that it will be another luxury Jerusalem project left empty by its foreign owners most of the year.
The planners have argued that the design of the planned new neighborhood will not harm the historical site. Indeed, they say it is necessary for financing the expenses to preserve the old Lifta homes, which will be incorporated into the neighborhood.
The stone homes are in a state of disrepair, and are at danger of collapsing.
However, the construction plans are bitterly opposed by a diverse group called the Coalition to Save Lifta, which includes former residents and their descendants, Israeli academics, architects, members of the Society for the Protection of Nature, and recently expelled Jewish residents of Lifta, who were settled there by the Jewish Agency in the 1950s but never received property rights.
Mohammad Abu Ta’a, 39, who lives in East Jerusalem, was one of the nearly 1,000 Palestinians visiting Lifta that sunny Friday afternoon in March. He was wearing a white hat and shirt that said in green writing “Returning to Lifta.”
“A Liftawi is not afraid,” he said. Meaning, not afraid to wait and press to return.
‘No other village like this’
The construction of the new neighborhood in Lifta was meant to begin years ago. But in 2012, opponents of the plan 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.” The survey 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.
It was once the Jerusalem region’s biggest and most important Palestinian village.
Mashiach said lands belonging to the Liftawis stretched to the Old City, including areas that were paved over as Jerusalem expanded outside its walls
Today, Lifta is on the list of UNESCO’s tentative world heritage sites for bearing “unique testimony of the traditional village life.”
It is also a popular nature getaway for Jerusalemites, who can take a swim in its natural spring or hike along the lush trails filled with rare flora and fauna.
“Biological phenomena in the area surrounding it are amazing. Things that are unique even on the international level,” said Amir Balaban of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
Those opposing the construction argue the results of the survey show conclusively that in order to preserve Lifta, the entire plan needs to be scrapped. Those who carried out the survey agree with them.
Mashiach, in an interview with The Times of Israel, said the survey showed “a full view of the culture and traditional life that has been preserved in an incredibly rare condition. There is no other village that has been preserved like this.”
“The best thing to do is to preserve and take advantage of the place for some kind of tourism or commerce, like is done around the world,” he added.
However, Mashiach and his team have no say in the future of Lifta.
The results of their survey, which was carried out at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer, has yet to be published. It was only given to the Israel Lands Authority, and to the Israeli company that designed the building plans, Ehud Tayar.
Despite the public opposition by the archaeologists who surveyed the site, the Lands Authority intends to go forward with the development plan, according to Jerusalem City Hall.
Mashiach said the ILA was amending supplementary documentation to the construction plans, which means both how the buildings are made and where they are placed can change, but the original outline of the plan will remain unchanged.
However, any revisions to the plan have not been made public, nor have they been put before the various building committees who gave the original plan approval back in 2004, before the survey was carried out and before stricter rules were put in place to protect historical sites.
The Lands Authority did not respond to numerous requests from The Times of Israel to confirm its plans for Lifta following the archaeological survey. The authority also did not respond to a request for permission to speak with the workers from Ehud Tayar who are responsible for designing the neighborhood.
The office of Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, said in a statement to The Times of Israel that the municipality supports developing the site.
“The Lifta Plans, which are intended for residential and tourism purposes, have been approved by the Local Planning Committee and adhere to the necessary conservation standards and procedures. The Municipality of Jerusalem supports the plan and has marketed and promoted the plan as part of the city’s development, while constantly ensuring adherence to the required rules for antiquities and preservation,” the statement said.
Jerusalem City Hall said the construction would take into account the results of the IAA survey of Lifta.
“Planning and development procedures will be followed as required by the results of the survey,” it said.
But Mashiach and the coalition of opposition activists say no amount of careful planning can do justice to Lifta. What makes the village special, they argue, is not the individual stone homes, nor the other archaeological discoveries in and of themselves.
Lifta is unique, said Mashiach, because the “total system” has been preserved, so that every bit of open space and man-made structure can be pieced together to recreate the village as one organism — a cultural landscape that has been made nearly extinct by war and the march of modernity.
‘Lifta is for the Liftawis’
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, but also left to crumble on its own.
In the early 1950s, a new Lifta was founded overlooking the valley and the deserted homes. This time it was by Jews from Kurdistan, who were settled there by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency.
Around 10 years ago, the Lands Authority demanded the Jewish Lifta residents leave their homes so that the roads to the entrance into Jerusalem could be widened. The state argued that these families were illegal squatters and was prepared to evict them without compensation.
Yoni Yochanan, one of the neighborhood’s residents, led a public campaign against the eviction. Sorting through old state documents from the 1950s, he managed to prove that they weren’t squatters and that the state had been remiss by not offering the Jewish Lifta families a chance to purchase their homes.
Yochanan’s revelations led to a compensation deal between the state and the Jewish Lifta families that was inked three months ago.
Last week the 12 remaining families vacated their homes and the bulldozers went to work demolishing them.
“The compensation isn’t big, but it’s enough to start a new life,” said Yochanan, in a phone interview on Sunday with The Times of Israel.
Yochanan has been a part of the coalition of activists that oppose the ILA’s construction plans in Lifta. He believes the village should be preserved for future generation’s to study.
“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.
Ilan Shtayer, one of the leaders of the coalition opposing the Lifta plan, highlighted and criticized the fact that the government has chosen to build luxury apartments on the site.
He warned that the Lifta neighborhood, should it be built, could follow in the footsteps of other luxury apartment complexes in Jerusalem that remain empty much of the year because they were purchased by wealthy non-Israelis as vacation homes.
“We can’t think anymore of another ghost neighborhood for the rich, with an exclusive boutique shopping center,” he said.
Shtayer also argued that the state is operating not just for financial benefit, but also out of an ideological desire to erase the vestiges of Palestinian life within Israel’s borders — Lifta’s empty homes being the first thing visitors to Jerusalem see upon approaching the city from the west.
“I am certain that there are people with a clear interest in erasing Lifta from the public eye in Israel and around the world,” he said.
He compared Lifta to the well-known historical sites of Pompeii and Machu Picchu, and said it has a “unique importance on a national and even world perspective.”
But while Shtayer and Yochanan would like to see Lifta preserved as is, there is another important group that sees a different future for the site.
Many Palestinian refugees from Lifta and their descendants don’t just want to preserve Lifta, they want to move back there. Today the Liftawis number in the tens of thousands and they maintain a strong connection to the village.
Abdallah, a Liftawi who now lives in Orlando, Florida, traveled all the way to Israel just to participate in the annual gathering at the abandoned village in March.
He pointed to a WhatsApp group with thousands of Liftawis as evidence of their strong bond.
“We have no other home for us. Beit Hanina,” a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, “is for the Hanina tribe,” he said. “Lifta is for the Liftawis.”
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