I have seen many photos of the destroyed village of Lifta, which dates back 1,000 years and has tax records from the Ottoman Empire. The photos show a famous, archetypal vista of fragmented houses, piles of stones extending into a valley at the edge of Jerusalem, but Omar from the Israeli organization Zochrot, (Remembering) has much to teach us. He has us rotate around 180 degrees and look at a conglomeration of modern buildings extending up the hill. These were all built on the land of the destroyed village of Lifta. He points out a little building hiding under a big billboard; this was once the school of Lifta and is now a Jewish school. So the village is far more than its famous ruins and actually encompasses much of the land around it. Close to old Jerusalem and on the road from Al Quds, the Arab name for Jerusalem, to Jaffa, this was a busy area for the locals, religious pilgrims, and tourists. The village actually dates back to the Canaanites, and has Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew roots. Lifta means “The Gate,” (of Jerusalem).
The sign reads En Neftoah (Lifta), and Omar explains that Neftoah is a Biblical place somewhere around here and that the Israelis added “En” to Hebraicize the name as well as give it an ancient reference. We scramble down a steep rocky path, past a dusty construction site which is part of a new project to build a train track to Jaffa that will include bridges and tunnels through this area. He points out nearby destroyed villages such as Biddu and JNF forests near the Jewish settlement of Ramot. We see a mosque at the top of a mountain which was attacked by settlers who wanted to turn it into a park and synagogue. Facing the other way towards the construction is the site of Deir Yassin, now a Jewish neighborhood. Beyond that is Ein Kerem and other Palestinian villages all occupied and mostly destroyed in 1948 with the creation of thousands of Palestinian refugees. There are also a scattering of Palestinian homes at the top of the valley that are now Jewish homes. The Knesset and many governmental offices, the high court, and even parts of Hebrew University are all on Lifta. I am in one of my feeling particularly hostile to ultra-Orthodox Jews in general and settlers in particular moods (this is happening fairly frequently), and note that many boys with kippahs, dangling payos, (the long curls on each side of the face), and tzitzit bouncing from their shirts as well as girls in long skirts and long sleeved blouses are walking on these paths as well. I can feel the bitterness in my throat and a twitching in my commitment to passivism.
Omar explains that before 1948, Lifta included 10,000 dunams with 40,000 more cultivated and a population of 3,000 which was a big, wealthy town for those days. There were many olive trees and vegetables planted from seed and it was a lush and prosperous place. 50 of the 400 houses are left. Other villages such as Ein Kerem and Ein Hod were not destroyed and are now Jewish towns, but 95% of the villages were completely demolished to eliminate the possibility of return. Strangely enough, in 1949 Jews from Arab countries were brought to live in Lifta, it probably looked a lot like home, but they left after a few years because the village was near the Green Line with the Jordanians on the other side and it was slightly dangerous, plus these Arab Jews had no water and no electricity provided to their homes. Jews from Arabic speaking countries were second class from the start. And did I mention that this area is crawling with Orthodox boys and girls and occasional older men with big hats and stern faces? (For me, this is how I know how bigotry feels. My hostility is growing and we haven’t even started arguing with each other.)
Almost immediately, various green organizations asked that Lifta be left as a park, a green spot in Jerusalem, but even today, most Israelis do not see the relationship between a park with graceful ruins and the Arabs that once inhabited them and are now deafeningly absent. As we scramble, walk, jump, trip around the stone paths and in and outside of crumbling homes, the sunset creating a shimmery streaking light, the extraordinary beauty of Lifta is painfully obvious. The stones range from grey white to orange. There are wells and aqueducts, the original fig trees and lush saber cactus, ancient terraces, amazing architecture with graceful archways and floors built on top of each other dating from different centuries and now crumbling from age and neglect. Each family also had a smaller house for baking bread. At the base of the valley we come across two pools with a predominantly orthodox group of youth playing in the water with a few guys in their underwear and girls in bikinis thrown in for dramatic effect. The first pool is cleaner and was originally for washing dishes, etc in the homes while the second pool, which is utterly disgusting, was for the animals to drink. Canals lead from the pools to water the various gardens below and each family had plots for figs and almonds, apricots, vegetables. This seems to me like an approximation of the Garden of Eden.
In 1947 the UN Partition Plan was announced and Jewish militias immediately started to occupy villages beyond the partition line. (Remember this important tidbit, this is before the state was declared, the Arabs attacked, etc). Lifta and Jerusalem were supposed to be international zones, but clashes with the Irgun started in 1947 and in early 1948, Irgun fighters, (shall we say terrorists?), dressed as tourists came into a Lifta coffee shop and shot six people, wounding seven. This created a wave of fear and the families living on the edges of town fled to East Jerusalem and Ramallah. A month later the Irgun bombed all the empty houses and then started attacking every few days to weeks. The inhabitants were terrified and fled to Ramallah but 30 to 50 young men stayed with some meager ammunition and guns. The Haganah and Irgun attacked again and Ben Gurion famously declared that you can now enter Jerusalem through the Lifta area, “without seeing any strangers” (read Arabs).
Then on April 9, 1948, 120 men, women and children were massacred in nearby Deir Yassin and the Jewish soldiers took a group of captured women on a “victory tour” around the city and then dumped them at the Jaffa Gate. The Arab population panicked and fled to Ramallah. The Israeli forces declared all the fleeing home owners “absentees” and confiscated all the property for the state.
As Lifta decayed, it also became a home for squatters, the homeless, and drug dealers who had been pushed out by the police. In the 1980s there was also a Jewish terror cell called the Lifta Underground that was plotting to bomb the Al Aqsa Mosque and the mosque in Hebron. (Yikes!) The Lifta mosque, one of the oldest buildings made of stone and mud mixed with ash, is cooler with a courtyard, trees growing stubbornly out of the stone walls and stairs. There are two rooms in various states of ruin, the prayer room and the school. Palestinian groups still come here to pray and Lifta survivors living in East Jerusalem come to pray and clean up the cemetery. In many of the rooms with high arched ceilings the keystone at the top, which is critical to the architectural stability of the stones, has been removed, thus contributing to the future collapse of the ruin.
At one point as we walk soberly through one stately house after another, gracefully arching windows, floors sticking out into nowhere, Omar tells us to put away our cameras. We peer across a roof and there is a gigantic construction site. “Haaretz” reports that the Israelis are building a massive bunker and underground tunnel that will connect to the prime minister’s house and be a functional government in case of nuclear war. Ultimately this will all be planted to appear as a garden. It seems that everyone around here is preparing for the apocalypse. Security is a bit touchy about us taking pictures of this not so secret project.
There is now a plan to finish the destruction of Lifta and build a posh new Jerusalem neighborhood and while there is a campaign fighting this proposal, Omar predicts construction will start in a few months. When he says this I am seized with a wave of grief and rage, and start taking photos of every stairway, crumbling wall, olive press, desperately trying to document the world that may soon be erased.
Omar explains that Zochrot started twelve to thirteen years ago to document the Nakba and to create a new memory of 1948. He reminds us that in the early days of the state, Ben Gurion asked academic researchers to create a history that stated Palestinians made the decision to leave voluntarily and the researchers have done an excellent job creating that illusion. Zochrot has studied 58 destroyed villages and has documented a total of 672 lost villages and small towns. 800,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled one way or another and 100,000 stayed. Omar was lucky. His village was attacked, one donkey was killed, homes were destroyed, and the remaining houses were totally ransacked, sugar poured into the olive oil, flour spilled on the floor, deliberate chaos, but the families returned. The village was located in the Triangle Area controlled by Jordan, but in the agreements at the end of the war, the Jordanians gave the Triangle Area as a gift to Israel, so by quirk of fate Omar is an Israeli citizen
Omar is proud that Palestinians continue to persevere and refuse to be erased from history and he is drawn to the work of Zochrot as part of that ongoing struggle to be seen and acknowledged within Israeli society. My eyes sweep across the ancient beauty and dignity of this rich valley, imaging the bustling community that once lived here. As a student of the Nakba, this is as close as I come to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.