Israel Plans to Build Villas on the Ruins of a Village That Has Become a Symbol of the Nakba

The Israel Land Authority wants the picturesque pre-state village of Lifta to be used for the construction of luxury villas. Palestinian activists – and the Jerusalem Municipality – are fighting the push to build up the abandoned historic site

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Lifta, last month. Was one of hundreds of villages left abandoned after the Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
Lifta, last month. Was one of hundreds of villages left abandoned after the Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.Credit: Emil Salman

A decade after the previous battle to prevent construction on the remnants of the village of Lifta in northwestern Jerusalem, the Israel Land Authority now plans to issue a tender for the construction of an affluent neighborhood in the area of the abandoned village that has become a symbol of the Nakba for Palestinians.

Former Jerusalem City Council member Yair Gabbay (who ran for Knesset on the Likud slate) claims the competitive bidding tender was unfrozen at his request, in honor of Jerusalem Day, and is a “harsh blow to the right of return” – the idea, in this case, that descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from land now in Israeli territory should be able to resettle there. The Jerusalem municipality is taking no responsibility for the authority’s plan; it says the tender is being issued without approval and must be reexamined. In the meantime, activists working to preserve the village are already preparing for a legal battle.

Lifta was one of hundreds of villages left abandoned after the Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, but is unique in that it has been left in place as a silent monument, and was not demolished or repopulated like many other towns. Because of this, the area has become a pilgrimage site and an educational tool. UNESCO even added Lifta to a tentative list in preparation for possibly declaring it a World Heritage Site, and the World Heritage Trust named it as one of 25 endangered sites.

An abandoned Palestinian building in Lifta. 'Skyscrapers are going up in the city at a dizzying pace – why destroy this historical pearl, surrounded by greenery?'Credit: Emil Salman

For 15 years, the government has tried to advance a plan to build over 200 single-family homes, a hotel and commercial space in Lifta. Following efforts by refugees from the village, along with architects and environmental and preservation activists, the Jerusalem District Court ordered in 2012 to cancel the tender and carry out a comprehensive archaeological survey to examine the preservation needs of the area.

The survey, whose findings were completed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2016, uncovered 2,000-year-old remnants from the Roman or Hellenistic periods, around which the nucleus of the village later developed throughout the 400 years of the Ottoman period. Remains of ancient olive oil presses, a covered street and huge caves were also discovered. The results of the comprehensive survey did not change the Land Authority’s intentions at the time of promoting the construction plan, this time with an appendix on preservation from the Antiquities Authority, but it was removed from the agenda in 2017 following opposition from many city council members.

'Lifta is a unique place in which findings were preserved from the first and second temples, alongside buildings from before the establishment of the state'

Since then, there have been no developments in the plan. But in May the Land Authority suddenly announced that it intended to issue the tender once again on July 29. The authority told Haaretz that it “issues tenders all over Israel according to the availability of the land and the statutory approval of the plans.” The statement added that the marketing of the area was done under their authority, and that it is based on the preservation documents approved by the Antiquities Authority. “This is a village that was abandoned over 73 years ago and which represents a danger to those who visit it because of the dangerous structures and hazards there,” the authority said. “Because the costs of preserving it are very high, the way to finance the preservation of the village’s special homes is only through the marketing of the village for housing and hotels.”

But the former city council member Gabbay, who was also a member of the regional planning and building committee that approved the original plan in 2006, has a different explanation as to why the Land Authority remembered to publish the controversial tender now. On his Facebook page, at the beginning of May, Gabbay said he is the one who approached the head of the authority, Yanki Quint, and asked him to issue the tender in advance of Jerusalem Day – and Quint agreed.

People visit Lifta, last month.Credit: Emil Salman

“On the land on which the Arab village was built were found artifacts of a Jewish community from the late Second Temple period” Gabbay wrote. “This is a welcome and exciting Zionist act that is happening symbolically on the eve of Jerusalem Day … We are delivering a harsh blow here to the right of return in light of the fact that these ruins have turned into a Palestinian memorial site.”

Roads that are supposed to be paved will destroy the old roads, trees, fences and ancient structures

The Land Authority told Haaretz in response that “the decision of marketing the tender has no connection to Yair Gabbay’s request.”

It seems that the tender is about to be issued without the support of the Jerusalem Municipality, in a rare step. The municipality told Haaretz that “the publication of the tender was without the city’s knowledge and without its approval. The mayor’s policy, which was provided to the Israel Land Authority, is to reexamine the plan.”

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon is not the only one who opposes the plan. Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger of the ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah party said that he “recommends that any contractor or entrepreneur think twice before placing their bid.” He added, “This is a plan that won’t have the backing of the Jerusalem Municipality. It contravenes the mayor’s position and my own. You cannot destroy and build up a special and historically meaningful area for 200 villas for millionaires.”

Laura Wharton, a city councilwoman representing the Meretz party, added that “Lifta is a unique place in which findings were preserved from the first and second temples, alongside buildings from before the establishment of the state. They should not move one rock there, except to develop the area the way they developed Caesarea and Acre, cities with rich histories. Lifta is an educational asset and can become a center for tourism. Skyscrapers are going up in the city at a dizzying pace – why destroy this historical pearl, surrounded by greenery? The municipality is not prepared to accept the Israel Land Authority’s underhanded opportunism, and will act to block the tender.”

The Land Authority may not require the city’s consent to issue the tender, but the lack of approval could very well strengthen the claims of its opponents. The decision to issue the tender without the city’s support also raises questions in light of the previous response provided by the Land Authority in March to journalist Aryeh Eldad, after he asked why a new tender had not yet been issued for construction in Lifta. The authority said in response that the “tender was supposed to be issued in coordination with the city of Jerusalem. As of now, the consent of the municipality to the marketing [of the land] has not yet been received.”

As a result of the intention to reissue the tender, activists working to preserve the village prepared to once again take legal action. Among them is Yakoub Odeh, who was one of the previous petitioners and was born and raised in Lifta before 1948. “I remember the village and its residents very well, the spring and the gardens around it,” he tells Haaretz. “Those were beautiful days and we were kings in our village.”

Odeh says the expulsion from the village was not done in one day, but “the conditions were created that did not allow for life there anymore. In my case, one day my father decided that we would leave the village. We all left, we ran into a truck with four other families from the village and joined them. The adults covered the children and we continued to Abu Ghosh. There we stopped because the day before they murdered a resident of Lifta there. So we traveled to Latrun, went up to Ramallah and there we remained refugees. We were in the clothes we left with and we didn’t even have food. In an hour we went from kings in our village to refugees who are knocking on the doors of the wealthy to look for food,” says Odeh. “Under the political conditions today, we will not be able to return to Lifta, but we will fight that it will be an open, natural museum for everyone.”

Sami Arshid, a lawyer who represented the families of the refugees in the previous petition, said: “At this stage, the battle has been renewed through a request to the Israel Land Authority, the Jerusalem Municipality and the regional planning and building committee with a request to cancel the new tender and to carry out new planning based on the findings of the preservation survey of the Antiquities Authority. At the same time, we demand to act to strengthen the existing structures to prevent the continued collapse of cultural assets. If this request is not honored in the next few days, we will once again be forced to turn to the courts.”

An abandoned building in Lifta, last month.Credit: Emil Salman

Since the authority’s intention to renew the construction plan reached the press, Palestinian youths have begun organizing protests among the ruins of the village. A member of the refugees committee, Nasser Abu Leil, said that they too have begun to renew their public activities to prevent the construction and in doing so to save Lifta, which brings together civil groups from various areas. Prof. Daphna Golan is one of them, and she said: “The village that was frozen in time allows us to see all the history, even the way of the Jewish settlement from Arab countries.”

Archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi from the Emek Shaveh organization, which focuses on the discipline’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says: “You don’t need to be an archaeologist to enjoy the history that the remnants of the village of Lifta recount. Generations of Israelis who came to the site in their childhood brought the village back to life in their imaginations, understood how the agricultural and architectural culture of the land looked in the last hundreds of years, and no less than that, gained a deep and direct understanding of the story of the land.”

When the previous petition was filed about a decade ago, preservation experts added a professional opinion to it, led by architect Dr. Shmuel Groag. The opinion said that Lifta is a unique and final testimony to the Palestinian construction heritage. This week, he said: “It’s true that they did a [preservation] survey, but there can’t be a situation in which they do a survey and don’t implement its findings.”

Opponents of the plan say that even if the professional opinion of the preservation experts is appended to the tender, the building plan will still contradict the survey’s conclusions, because it requires the partial demolition of and damage to the unique landscape. Roads that are supposed to be paved will destroy the old roads, trees, fences and ancient structures.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said it is only responsible for “matters concerning antiquities and that is the purview of its authority. The Authority carried out a meticulous survey in Lifta of the entire area, including an architectural analysis of every structure. Its detailed instructions were published in the tender documents of Plan 6035, and they include, among other things, instructions for the preservation of buildings, rehabilitation and reconstruction of the existing buildings and terraces and their integration in the development, as well as the determination of antiquities sites and instructions for their development. Some of these instructions even include conditions for receiving a building permit. It should be emphasized that the general construction plan may have been approved, but the detailed plans will be presented by the winners according to the guiding principles of the tender and the instructions of the Antiquities Authority.”

Yanal Jbareen and Zena Abo Zrka are participants in the Haaretz 21 project, a journalistic initiative that aims to amplify underrepresented voices of Arab/Palestinian communities within Israel.

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