March 14, 2011
Few Palestinian villages capture the tragedy of 1948 like Lifta. Refugees from Lifta appeal to the international community to halt the final destruction of their village; Israel should not be allowed to continue justifying its annexation practices and denial of Palestinian rights in order to build luxury apartments exclusively for Jews.
Few villages capture the tragedy of the Nakba (the 1948 dispossession of the Palestinian people) quite like Lifta. Situated on the north-west edge of Jerusalem, the village is divided by the 1949 Armistice green line, which leaves part of it in West Jerusalem and part in East Jerusalem. The village has been continuously inhabited for well over 2,000 years, long before the establishment of the state of Israel. Official records indicate that in 1931, the number of houses stood at 410, most of which were built by Lifta's Palestinian residents using the famous Jerusalem stone from nearby quarries. During the 1940s and leading up to the end of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1948, Lifta expanded markedly eastward and northward, linking with the buildings of the Rumayma neighbourhood just west of Jerusalem. Its economic ties with Jerusalem became strong as nearly half of Lifta's cultivated land was planted with cereal, wheat, barley, olives and various fruits. As the village expanded, the villagers built new stores, established a social club and opened two coffee houses. But they also took care to preserve the older sites, both sacred and secular.
During the 1948 war, one of the goals of the Jewish armed forces was securing the western exit of the city. In order to achieve this the Israeli forces launched a series of military and militia attacks on the village including the burning of the Mukhtar’s (head of the village) house on the 11th of January 1948, and two days later 20 houses close to the entry of the city (KhalitTarha) were blown up. As result of these attacks acts against the inhabitants of the village, women and children in particular, were forced to flee, seeking protection over the green line in the eastern part of the village. Following the April 1948 massacre in the nearby village of DeirYassin, the remaining inhabitants of western Lifta were forced to leave. Quite a number of the village houses and the two elementary schools were demolished and only after desperate pleas by local dignitaries were most of the houses standing today saved from total destruction.
The Israeli government today views the remaining buildings in Lifta as absentee property in spite of the fact that many of the owners of the land and the homes live as close as 500m away in East Jerusalem. In December 1948 Israel enacted the 'Emergency Regulations on Property of Absentee’ generally referred to as the 'Absentee Property Act’, which became law in 1950. Accordingly the government established the Custodian of Absentee Property, a division within the Financial Ministry, to take charge of the refugees’ property. These regulations reclassified most abandoned Arab property as absentee, with all rights of said properties belonging to the Custodian. Officially this was done for guardianship of the properties until a political solution for the refugees was reached which is, according to the Oslo Accords, left to the final status negotiations. In reality the property in question is always transferred to a Government Development Authority which is then sold for a nominal fee to the private sector/settler organizations in a process that involves no due process, no notice and no compensation. Landowners could lose their property without even knowing it.
Granting ownership of Palestinian refugees’ property by the Israeli government to private and Jewish institutions is considered an illegal act in violation of paragraph 11 of UN resolution 194 (III), as well as a failure to uphold the commitment of the State of Israel to administer such property until a solution to the refugee problem is found. In addition, Israel is violating the refugees’ right to claim the revenues and proceeds generated from these properties which should be paid by Israel to them or to a fund on their behalf.
Many of those who were evicted from their homes in 1948 found refuge with their families in the part of the village lying on the Arab side of the Armistice line of 1949 in what is now known as East Jerusalem. The expansion of the municipal boundaries following the 1967 war created a situation whereby Palestinian Jerusalemites were given permanent residency status and IDs allowing them to visit the ruins of their side of the village but not to assert any claims of legal title over the land that is theirs by right. More of the Lifta refugees went to Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank.
In June 2004, the Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee, with the help of two architectural offices, G. Kartas/S Grueg and S Ahronson (in collaboration with Ze'evTemkin of TIK Projects), produced a redevelopment project (Plan No. 6036) to turn Lifta into an exclusively Jewish luxury residential/commercial neighbourhood. This plan, originally launched in April 1984 under the name "Plan 2351" but never implemented, had the intriguing title of "The Spring of National." It was later approved by a regional planning committee. In February, under the misleading cover title of a preservation project, the Israeli Land Department requested tenders for bids from the private sector in order to sell the land of Lifta in a plan which called for the building of some 245 luxury housing units, a shopping mall, a tourist resort, a museum and a luxury 120-room hotel. Most of the existing Lifta houses would be destroyed to erase any lingering memory of a once thriving Palestinian community. Even the Palestinian cemetery nearby does not figure in the new plan. Not only have the present Liftawis not been featured or consulted, but the memory and physical presence of their dead ancestors would now be erased.
The history and culture of the Palestinian community that flourished in Lifta does not feature in the new renovation plans. There is no record of Lifta's Palestinian history as would normally be required of any renovation/preservation project, to link the present with the past. Even Lifta's original mosque would be destined for removal, to be replaced by a synagogue.
The petition to save Lifta was submitted on Sunday the 6thof March by Attorney Sami Arshid on behalf of Jerusalem activists, including descendents of Lifta, the BneiLifta Association, Rabbis for Human Rights and the Jafra Association objecting to the sale of their property to the private sector in contravention of the "Absentee Property Law". On Monday the 7thIsraeli Judge Yigal Marzel issued a temporary injunction ordering the Israel Land Administration to freeze publication of the results of the tender to sell off plots of land. If these plots do get sold off and new construction begins it will be impossible to preserve the history and culture of the village which will be lost forever under a wave of new construction.
Lifta must be preserved and rebuilt by/for its original owners to raise awareness about the history of 1948. The original Palestinian inhabitants of Lifta, their memories of the village, their exile and longing to return home must be respected and supported by local and international community institutions and organizations. The Palestinian refugees, the original inhabitants of Lifta are appealing to the international community to stop Israeli attempts to erase the remainder of their homes, history, culture and heritage and to oblige Israel to make it possible for them to return to their homes and to exercise their rights to their land and property. Israel should not be allowed to continue justifying its annexation practices and policies of denying Palestinian rights in order to build luxury apartments exclusively for Jews.