State buries survey on ancient Jerusalem village slated for development

State buries survey on ancient Jerusalem village slated for development

Activist says officials afraid archaeological findings on Lifta will help preservationists fighting plan to put luxury homes in hillside hamlet frozen in time

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

View of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, December 17, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
View of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, December 17, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel’s official body for managing state lands canceled an event scheduled Thursday to unveil archaeological findings for a remarkably well-kept heritage site that is slated to be turned into luxury apartments, saying it will still be involved in discussions over the final report.

The Israel Land Authority event would have been the first time the Israel Antiquities Authority would officially present the results of its three-year long survey of the Lifta village, which is a candidate to be a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was recently named one of 25 endangered sites on the 2018 World Monuments Watch list, due to the construction plans.

The Arab village, with stone buildings clinging to a hillside near the main western entrance to the capital, has been described as a site frozen in time, with preservation activists and descendants of the original inhabitants fighting a plan for the site to be taken over by a large luxury development.

The area is treasured by locals and tourists for its natural beauty, and a spring at the site is a popular local swimming hole.

Israelis cool off in the Lifta spring in Jerusalem during the Passover holiday, April 26, 2016, as temperatures rise up to 40 degrees in some parts of the country. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Land Authority said it nixed the event because “discussions” over the findings are still ongoing, and did not give a date when the findings would be presented.

“The discussions on the findings of the survey have not yet ended, and therefore it has been decided that there is no room for presenting it at the moment,” a spokesperson said in a statement to The Times of Israel.

“In the future we will consider presenting the final survey to the public,” the statement added.

Opponents of the plan contend the findings will strengthen their case that the site, with archaeological remains going back millennia, should be preserved and claim the cancellation was a bid to quash those findings.

Ilan Shtayer, one of the leaders of the coalition opposing the Lifta plan, argued in an interview with The Times of Israel that the ILA “decided to prevent the details of the survey from getting out to everyone, because they know most people will come to a different conclusion than it has.”

“They are afraid,” he added.

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 Antiquities Authority to conduct a thorough survey of the village, which was paid for out of the budget of the Land Authority. The Times of Israel recently published some of the survey’s finding.

The archaeological survey was described by conservation architect Avi Mashiach, who led the dig, as “the biggest, most complex and important survey ever carried out by the Antiquities Authority,” according to the Haaretz daily.

The survey ended last December.

Mashiach, in a recent 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, as is done around the world,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Antiquities Authority said the body could not comment about the canceled event, which was scheduled to take place at Jerusalem’s City Hall, explaining that it was the Land Authority’s decision.

While in the past the Antiquities Authority has allowed The Times of Israel to interview Mashiach, in this case authorization was not given.

Mashiach has, several times in the past, presented some of the findings of his survey in nonofficial forums.

The interior of an old house 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/Thomas Coex)

Haaretz on Wednesday reported that the Land Authority–which is technically the owner of the research on Lifta, because it paid for it–pressured the Antiquities Authority in recent days to cancel the event. While the body initially resisted, it eventually gave in to the pressure, according to the report.

The Land Authority has pushed ahead recently with the plans for the site, making only minor changes following the survey, despite public opposition.

An Orthodox Jew recites the Tashlich prayer in a building in Lifta, at the entrance to Jerusalem, near the Lifta spring. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, in August, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman temporarily halted the Lifta construction plans after realizing that a majority of members in the Local Planning and Building Committee, which he chairs, oppose the plan in its current form.

Members of the committee opposed the plan both out of the desire to not harm the historical site, but also because they oppose the building of a few hundred luxury apartments rather than thousands of low-cost housing units for residents of the crowded capital.

Turgeman said the plan would undergo “professional examination,” after which it would be reintroduced to the committee. How long that will take, is unclear.

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