Jerusalem Drops Plan to Build Luxury Homes Atop Abandoned Palestinian Village

Jerusalem city council members objected to building 200 luxury villas on abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta, whose future will now undergo further consideration

Tal Shahar

In a victory for opponents of plans to redevelop the abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem as a luxury neighborhood, the city’s local planning and building committee on Wednesday removed the controversial proposal for the construction of 200 new housing units there. The move came in the face of opposition from members of Jerusalem’s city council.

Opponents of the plans include architects, historic preservation advocates and descendants of the original residents of the village. City officials will have difficulty getting the plans approved in the future in their current form and will apparently have to make changes to them in advance of any reconsideration of proposals for the village.

About five years ago, the construction plans for Lifta were suspended by Jerusalem District Court Judge Yigal Mersel in response to a petition filed by descendants of Palestinians who lived there until 1948. The judge ordered the state to carry out a comprehensive survey of the homes at Lifta before any further steps in the approval of development of the village would be granted.

In recent years, the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted the survey, which is thought to be the first of its kind in the country. It included a three-dimensional review of all of the homes there, which also revealed a large number of underground spaces, indicating that the core portion of the village was older than had been thought. Despite the findings from the survey, however, the Israel Land Authority, which had undertaken the plans to redevelop Lifta, sought to have the plans approved with few changes. The Jerusalem municipality supported the ILA’s request and the plans were put on the agenda of the local planning and building committee for approval.

But in the course of consideration of the plans, it became apparent that some of the members of the planning committee, including city council members from the governing coalition, were opposed to the proposal, and as a result, committee chairman Meir Turgeman removed the matter from the committee agenda.

Opponents of the plan have said it does not sufficiently take the survey findings into account, adding that the plans could do damage to historic homes in Lifta and to the village as a whole. Opponents are now expected to propose a new plan for the Palestinian village, which is within the Jerusalem city limits.

The original plan deals with LIfta’s historic core in the lower portion of the village. In the upper portion of the village, adjacent to Route 1 at the western entrance to Jerusalem, all of the families who made their homes there since the 1950s were evicted so that their houses can be demolished to allow the highway to be widened.

“Now we have the very major challenge of presenting alternatives,” said Ilan Stayer, one of those active in opposing the original plan. “First of all, this site needs to be preserved as a whole, to be dealt with in its entirety by some kind of public authority. The first step is to invest in stabilizing the walls and the houses so they don’t collapse. It’s not a large investment. Then they need to establish a system to shore the place up and preserve it, and then think about what needs to be done there. But the thinking needs to be carried out with the residents and not with the developers.”

“I’m very pleased that, despite the pressures exerted on members of the local [planning] committee, a clear majority of members opposed the plan,” said opposition Meretz party councilwoman Laura Wharton. “The village of Lifta is a unique place from a historical and archaeological standpoint, in addition to being a green gem. The readiness of the municipal administration to also destroy this rare asset for money from real estate sharks is additional proof of its moral shortsightedness and bankruptcy. Lifta needs to be preserved and cared for as part of the history of the area.”

For his part, Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz of the Hitorerut faction expressed satisfaction that he and his colleagues had formed a broad coalition that opposes turning Lifta into a neighborhood of 200 luxury homes. The ancient homes there should be preserved along with protected natural space that will provide access to the site to the public at large, with tourist amenities and public buildings, he said.

The Jerusalem municipality issued a statement saying: “The plan has been taken off the agenda so that it can undergo additional professional consideration. After this examination ends, it will be resubmitted for consideration by the local planning and building committee.”