Defeated in Court, Lifta's Last Families to Leave Their Jerusalem-area Homes

Government acknowledges they weren't squatters but were resettled in Lifta by the appropriate authorities; they will get compensation for giving up their homes

Resident Yoni Yochanan is seen packing his possessions after receiving an eviction order, Lifta, near Jerusalem, Israel, June 20, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The last of the families living in the Lifta neighborhood at the entrance to Jerusalem will leave their homes this week. The evacuation will allow the construction of a new, expanded western entrance to the capital.

After a long legal battle, the families have agreed to leave voluntarily. The government acknowledged they were not squatters but instead were resettled in Lifta by the appropriate authorities, and they are receiving compensation for giving up their homes.

The agreement between residents and the Finance Ministry was signed three months ago. It was the first recognition of responsibility by the government for settling Mizrahi immigrants who came to Israel in the 1950s in houses abandoned by Palestinians in 1948.

Residents of Lifta, most of whom were Kurdish immigrants, were housed there on the instructions of the Jewish Agency in 1951. Nine years ago, the Israel Lands Administration demanded the residents leave their homes without any compensation, saying they were illegal trespassers and squatters. One resident, Yoni Yochanan, started a public and legal campaign against their eviction.

During his fight, Yochanan uncovered documents from the mid-1950s showing that residents were supposed to receive legal rights to their homes, but the government hid this fact from them. After the documents were revealed, negotiations began between the residents and the authorities. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon intervened six months ago and three months later, the agreement was signed.

The remnants of a demolished house in Lifta, near Jerusalem, Israel, June 20, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The details of the deal, the first of its kind in Israel, were not revealed so it would not become a precedent for the hundreds of people around the country without proper legal rights to the homes they have been living in for decades. However, it is known that the compensation received by Lifta residents was enough for them to find housing elsewhere.

The families began leaving over the past week, and the last families are supposed to evacuate by the end of this week. A city-owned company responsible for infrastructure in Jerusalem, Moriah, is demolishing the houses as soon as the residents leave to prevent squatters.

“We have mixed feelings, there is something harsh when you leave your home, but on the other hand there is relief. We have been aware for 10 years that in the end we will leave, that there is no other way. I fought my battle and won, and after [Kahlon] was here and asked for forgiveness in the name of the state, we are leaving with our heads held high,” says Yochanan.

Since the agreement was signed, he has become a volunteer adviser to Kahlon on cases of other residents who do not have legal rights to their homes – even though Lifta was a relatively unique case since all the families are the descendents of the original residents, who were placed there by the Jewish Agency.

At the same time, the battle continues over the development plan for the center of the old village of Lifta, which is located down in the valley, below the houses that are being evacuated. This part of the village is considered to be the most complete remnant of the villages abandoned in 1948 and never resettled.

The Lands Administration’s plan for the heart of the old village, which will preserve the historic buildings, includes a new luxury neighborhood and a tourist complex.

Abandoned Palestinian houses in the old village of Lifta, June 20, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The courts ordered the government to carry out a thorough conservation and archaeological survey before approving the plan, and six months ago, the Antiquities Authority completed it. While documenting all the layers of the old village, the survey found a great deal of previously unknown information about the village, including that its core was much older than previously thought. The survey also uncovered the existence of many unknown underground spaces.

Opponents of the construction believe that the archaeological survey has not been officially published yet because the authorities do not want to have to reopen the development plan. They say the developers want to include the survey results only as an appendix to the construction plan, which would endanger the historic structures and the fabric of the village. The Antiquities Authority did wonderful work, but it seems no one wants to hear what they found, said Ilan Shtayer, one of the leaders fighting to preserve Lifta.