Lifta - Emil Salman
Lifta outside Jerusalem. The Palestinian ruins will become yet another Israeli luxury housing project. Photo by Emil Salman
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The first Arab residents have begun to enter their new homes in the village of Lifta at the western approach to Jerusalem. Many of them are descendants of Palestinian families who lived there until the eve of the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. When they left the village, it remained abandoned for decades and its ruins became a symbol of the destruction of the Palestinian community in Israel.

The village has been reconstructed according to a building plan advanced by the Israel Lands Administration in cooperation with residents' families. The streets teem with life and tourism and commerce are flourishing; boutique hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, souvenir shops and a colorful market have opened.

The old mosque has been rebuilt. Fifty-five historical buildings have been restored and converted to new uses. One of them serves as a historical museum.

Jewish and Arab high school and university students visit as part of their civics courses, studying the Palestinian narrative in local history. The newer buildings are constructed in a blend of the many different styles characteristic of Arab communities, and more than a little of their traditional character was lost. But even the strictest adherents of preservation admit that the historical justice carried out here was worth the price. On second thought, it is a kind of authenticity in itself and a thread that connects history to our time.

None of this ever happened nor will it ever; it does not jibe with current Israeli reality.

The Israel Lands Administration has in fact advanced a new building plan for the decade, and has just issued a tender for the acquisition of plots of land in Lifta. But this plan is light years away from the vision above, and chances that descendants of refugees from Lifta will ever step foot there are nil.

The plan calls for 212 apartments and a commercial and tourist center; it will turn into a luxury complex in the style of David's Village in Mamilla or the Yemin Moshe artists colony.

Although it is termed a preservation effort, it is in effect, paradoxically, an erasure of all memory of the original village. And there is also no chance that a Palestinian museum will be erected there.

Urban building plan number 6036 for the ruins of the village was authorized about five years ago after opposition by a number of non-profit groups, including Zochrot and Bimkom, was rejected. They called on the village to be developed as a preserve of Palestinian memory and in this way contribute to reconciliation between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. In its opposition to the plan, Bimkom emphasized every nation's right to memory, and wrote that the issues of preservation and memory "should be the basis of common cultural knowledge for every element of the population in Israel."

But all of this is a distant dream. Unlike the designers' fantasies, the voices of village refugees and their families were not heard at the discussion of the plan, which was not meant for them from the beginning. Many of them live in East Jerusalem, not far from the homes they were not allowed to return to, and where they are to this day not allowed to build homes.

Frozen memory

Lifta is a place frozen in time. It is unpopulated and has not turned into an artists' colony, like Ein Hod or Old Jaffa. The core of the village remains almost in its entirety, with dozens of original buildings and a landscape which has not been covered with JNF forests, and not styled by landscape architects - the fate now expected to befall the village according to the new plan.

Behind all this beauty lies all the elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the refugee problem, the demand for the right of return, denial of memory and so on.

The building plan for Lifta cannot be considered innocent. There is no reason to slaughter this beautiful piece of land for 200 homes for the rich; it answers no vital need and does not solve any of the housing problems in Jerusalem, and it will not contribute to reconciliation, but rather deepen the conflict and erase more proof that someone was here before us.

The only justification for the development of Lifta, and it too sounds like a fantasy today, is building that will serve Palestinian refugees and create a kind of historical justice with a symbol, a tribute.

This kind of effort would also be political and perhaps lack planning logic, but justice and ethics and the chance to turn the village from a memorial to destruction into a symbol of a shared future stand in its favor.

Because such an alternative is out of the question, there is nothing left to do but act to stop the plan, and raise funds to do the necessary work to strengthen existing buildings until a suitable solution is found.

It is to be hoped that such funds will be sufficient for an investigatory commission. This is the place to repeat the conclusions of the Or Commission on the events of September 2000, quoted by Bimkom in its opposition to the building plan and more relevant now than ever.

"The establishment of the state of Israel, which the Jewish people celebrated as the realization of the dream of generations, is connected to [the Palestinians'] historic memory, the most difficult trauma in their history, the Nakba," the Or Commission report said. "The programs and symbols of the state are also anchored in law that praises the victory in the conflict ... which is seen by the Arab minority as a defeat. It is appropriate to find ways to strengthen Arab citizens' feeling of belonging to the nation without hurting their connection to their culture and community."