This is the saddest village in Israel and probably the most beautiful, too. There’s nothing else like it: a ghost village, many of whose homes are still standing, with a hole in the roof, courtesy of Israel, to prevent them for being reused. The 60 or so homes that remain, of two and sometimes three stories, are planted on the slope of the hill and blend masterfully into the natural landscape. Each floor of the buildings, fashioned from stone and graced with arches, tells the story of a different period and a different style of construction. Lifta is a rare architectural gem, a monument to what was once here in this country, mute testimony to a way of life that was abruptly cut off. A mosque, olive presses and a flour mill, remains of picturesque balconies, a tiled path leading to the spring, which was one the village’s throbbing heart and whose waters are now in use by yeshiva students and “hilltop youth” in the “between the times” vacation that follows Tisha B’Av.

The spaces between the houses are untended, overgrown with sabras of course. A Palestinian family from Zur Baher, a village on Jerusalem’s southeastern outskirts, has come here this week, to the ruins of this village on the city’s northern edge, to pick the fruit of these cactuses for Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice; they use the traditional stick with an empty tin can attached at one end for the task. A day earlier, Jews mourned the Temple, which was also an abattoir, destroyed 2,000 years ago. Those same Jews are forbidding their Palestinian neighbors from mourning the destruction of their home 73 years ago, and chastise them for wallowing in their catastrophe.

In his 1992 book “All that Remains,” the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi tells of 410 homes that existed in Lifta in 1931 and of 2,550 residents in 1945. Yacoub Odeh, who was a boy of 8 at the time of the Nakba, talks about 550 homes in 1948 and says there are some 40,000 descendants of the village’s refugees, scattered in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan and the Palestinian diaspora. At 81, Odeh looks 60 and climbs Lifta’s paths like a 40-year-old; he knows every fig tree and remembers every home; each wall here evokes memories. He’s a retired teacher who lives in the neighborhood of Shuafat in East Jerusalem. In the past, he spent 17 years in an Israeli prison, but he won’t talk about that today, because it’s unrelated to the matter at hand, which is the struggle to preserve Lifta.

Odeh is active in the Save Lifta Coalition, a Jewish-Palestinian group that has been fighting for years to preserve the site as it is. Two other active members of the coalition, Daphna Golan, emerita professor of sociology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Ilan Shtayer, a microhistorian, also accompany us on a tour amid the houses here. To the first question that comes to mind, as soon as one lays eyes on these ghost homes – why did Israel not demolish the village in 1948 or thereafter, as it did with hundreds of other villages – they have no reply.

Lifta was populated in 1949 with immigrants from Yemen and afterward by immigrants from Kurdistan, but they have all long since left. Only a precious “boutique” hotel on the village’s edge, and a Jewish-owned architectural firm operate here today. The other homes are empty, abandoned, neglected and sad.

“Death to the Arabs” is scrawled on the house of the al-Aasi family, which overlooks the spring: The Aasis fled to Jordan. Empty beer bottles desecrate the sooty mosque. Most of the headstones in the cemetery that lies on the side of the hill have disappeared. Buried here are three of the villagers who were killed in the “Lifta massacre” – the murderous attack by Jewish fighters on the café of Salah Eisa on December 28, 1947. “Honor your father and your mother,” preaches an advertisement by Optica Halperin, a chain of opticians, on the building that was erected on the ruins of the café, high on the hill, overlooking the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, not far from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station.

Someone has removed many of the keystones from the arched buildings, presumably in hope that the structures would collapse by themselves, but the “Arab labor" here is surer than any malicious hand: Most of the buildings remain intact, even after all the years in which homeless people and junkies lived in them and had their way with them. But now the village faces the greatest peril of all: the lure of mammon.

The Israel Land Administration is about to publish a tender, soliciting bids for construction of a luxury neighborhood on the ruins of Lifta: 259 “villas,” a hotel, a mall. The ILA promises to preserve the houses, but the Save Lifta activists, convinced that a luxury neighborhood will erase the beauty of the village and its heritage, has launched a public and legal struggle for the future Lifta. Even the Jerusalem Municipality opposes the plan at present. A similar scheme, devised in 2004, was scuttled following a public battle.

Both Yacoub Odeh, the village’s surviving remnant, and the Jewish activists know well that there will be no Palestinian “return” to Lifta, at least not in the years ahead. That’s a pity, because a pilot project for return could be established here, a model for return, a gesture by Israel to refugees (or their descendants) who would return to their abandoned houses without any Jews having to be expelled from their homes. But in 2021 Israel that’s a pipe dream. Accordingly, the aim of the campaign is to preserve what exists, not to touch anything, not to demolish and not to build, only to stabilize the structures so they won’t collapse, and to leave the decision about the future of the village to coming generations.

The advocates of return think that this stain at the entrance to Jerusalem might act as a silent reminder that could generate awareness. “Return consciousness,” Golan calls it. Her 2018 book “Teaching Palestine on an Israeli University Campus: Unsettling Denial” (Hebrew), devotes a chapter to Lifta, in which she shares a dream of establishing a museum on the site, along the lines of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, which she envisions as a teaching center to commemorate the village that was erased. In an even more far-reaching vision, Golan talks about the village as a site for meetings of Israeli-Palestinian truth and reconciliation committees that would be formed in a utopian future, again based on the South African model.

Nature lovers and environmentalists want to preserve the spectacular scenery and the untamed nature here – suffice it to glance at the buildings of the Givat Shaul neighborhood, which tower above the village, to grasp how ugly the alternative could be. International organizations such as UNESCO, which has placed Lifta on its list ahead of declaring it a World Heritage Site, and the World Heritage Fund, which in 2018 noted the village on a list of 24 endangered heritage sites, are also working to save Lifta. It’s a reasonable assumption that in addition to big money and the compulsion “to develop,” behind the decision to create a new Jerusalem luxury neighborhood also lurks the intention to wipe out any physical manifestation of the memories and thus also the last chance for a return.

For Yacoub Odeh, Lifta remains a life enterprise. Everywhere he goes, he carries with him in his bag photocopies of the Turkish kushans (property deeds) of a number of families, including his own, and enhances them with his private childhood memories. He can talk about them for hours – it’s hard to stop him once he gets going. He says he comes here once every week or two, nostalgic for his past and contemplating the present. A few days ago, he discovered that a few building stones had been removed from the roof of the mosque. From his second childhood home nothing remains besides a heap of stones overgrown with thorns. The family’s first home, where he was born, lies in the part of Lifta on the other side of the valley, still intact, though its two top floors are gutted. His grandfather’s brother, the muezzin, called the faithful to prayer from the balcony of that house. The Knesset building also stands on village lands, in the Sheikh Badr neighborhood, but that’s “far off.” The village’s lands extended as far as Wadi Joz in East Jerusalem. There were seven stone-cutting mills used to produce the stones for building Lifta’s homes from natural materials in the area, and six olive presses.

What do you feel when you see the yeshiva students in the village?

Odeh: “How would you feel if I were to take your ID card, remove your photo from it and put in someone else’s photo?” He falls silent for a bit, gasps for air, and continues: “My childhood was here in the pool of the spring. I was like a fish. When the bell rang in school high on the hill at the end of the day, we would compete to see who would be first to hop from boulder to boulder to reach the spring.” His school building still exists and now houses a Talmud Torah. From his bag Odeh pulls another photo, this one of his class.

After the shooting attack on Salah Eisa’s café in 1947 came the burning of the house of the mukhtar, Mahmoud Siyam – another warning to the residents to get out. The village was besieged, 20 buildings were blown up and exchanges of fire between the Jewish fighters and the Arabs became a daily affair. Local residents, including the boy Yacoub Odeh, found shelter in the wadi. Finally a decision was made to evacuate the women and the children. Odeh recalls a truck journey that ended in Ramallah.

“Within an hour, I had become a refugee. We didn’t take anything with us: We knew we’d be back tomorrow. We had been kings, and within an hour we became beggars who were knocking on doors to ask for food. That’s how I joined the Palestinian national movement. All my life I have dreamed of returning.”

Odeh’s father stayed behind with the fighters in the village until the massacre in nearby Deir Yassin in April 1948, which struck dread into the hearts of the villagers as it did with many Palestinians, and then they left the village for good. He died a year later at the age of 37 – from heartbreak, his son is certain. After 15 months in Ramallah the family moved to the Jerusalem’s Old City, by then, in Jordanian hands, so as to be closer to Lifta.

“No one has the right to build a luxury neighborhood here and to demolish the homes of our grandparents and parents, and our memories. I know that I will not be able to return to my home," says Odeh. "But let us leave the situation as it is. Lifta was not destroyed in the war. Don’t destroy it now.”

Suddenly he remembers one of the houses in the valley below us, where the woman who lived there grew flowers in her garden. The children would sneak into the garden and pick them. One time she caught them. The children claimed they had only come to smell the flowers. She said that if they picked the flowers they would die and would no longer be able to smell them. Since then, says Yacoub Odeh, he has never picked a flower in his life.