Standing within the boundaries of the holy city, Lifta is one of the 68 villages surrounding Jerusalem that were ethnically cleansed during the Israeli systematic attack in 1948. Unlike the others, it is the only Arab village that has not been destroyed since.
Israel confiscated the village land under the Absentee Property law in 1950, despite recognition by the Fourth Geneva Convention of the right of refugees to be repatriated.
Some of its inhabitants found shelter a few hundred meters away, certain of soon being able to return to their former homes, while others fled to the West Bank and are now unable to visit their village due to the severe restrictions on Palestinian movement imposed by the Israeli government.
Last year, the Israel Land Authority (ILA) issued a tender for a construction plan for 212 luxury housing units on the Lifta site. The Jerusalem District Court for technical reasons rejected the measure, but the plan is still on stand-by.
Despite the 65 years that have passed from the last time he woke up in his house, Yacoub Odeh never lost his sense of belonging
One of the former inhabitants of Lifta is Yacoub Odeh, born in 1940 and among the last holders of the oral history of the village. When not working at the Land & Housing Research Centre in Jerusalem, Odeh organises guided tours, bringing Lifta back to life for a couple of hours with memories of the bread baked in the tabboun, the taste of za’tar and fresh olive oil and the smell of homemade ka’ak. Odeh recounts how the members of the community lived, how they shared food and water and helped one another cultivate their lands. He describes his village as jennah, or “paradise” but goes on to acknowledge, “As Arabs say, paradise without people is nothing.”
Due to its strategic position, Lifta was one of the first villages attacked by the Israeli forces in 1948, the year remembered by Palestinians as the Nakba, the catastrophe. Odeh was only 8 years old at that time, but his memories of that day are still vivid. When he heard the shooting, he was at home with his mother, who hid him and his siblings under a table.
One of the men of the village used his truck to drive the children to Ramallah, away from the conflict. “One moment we had everything, we were happy, and the moment after we were beggars,” Odeh remembers. During the tours, he carries with him many documents proving Palestinian ownership of the land, one of which dates back to the Ottoman Empire.
“Unfortunately,” he argues, “this is not a matter of law, but of law of force.”
The slope leading into the village, referred to as al-'oqbah, the obstacle, is still as steep as it was in the past, but the view has changed dramatically. Lifta appears as an island lost in time, encircled by the Begin highway on one side and the construction yard of the light train from Jaffa to Tel Aviv on the other. Each house was built by its owner out of limestone using Lifta’s own rocky soil, its beauty being a unique evidence of the bygone prosperity of the village. Israelis subsequently put holes into the roofs of the village’s structures to prevent Palestinian resettlement and giving visible proof of the daunting history of the Israeli occupation.
The centre of the social life of Lifta before 1948 was the main square, the saha. Here, the villagers sat under a mulberry tree and shared the memories of their fathers, danced the dabka under the moonlight, or listened to the rawi, the storyteller.
“If you ask any man from Lifta, what is the saha? He will remember all the stories that happened here. 'You remember when 'Ali married and…?’” Odeh’s voice fades away as his mind goes back in time. Around him, teenage settlers shout as they play in the village’s old well, situated in the centre of the square, now used by Israelis as a pool. An old Jewish man in a long tunic joins them and, raising his hands to the sky, starts chanting in praise of Israel.
Entombed in Lifta’s ruins is the meaning of the Nakba. This place tells the story of the conflict in terms of the strive for memory and collective identity which both Israeli and Palestinians are conducting, thus making the siege of a piece of land not a mere matter of space and resources, but a way to impose one’s own memory and concurrent narrative. What the inhabitants of Lifta have lost during the Nakba is not a clod of earth, but the community that lived on it and its identity.
Despite the 65 years that have passed from the last time he woke up in his house, Yacoub Odeh never lost his sense of belonging. “I am from Lifta. These are the things that shape my life. This is my life. The day I will forgive and forget is the day in which I will be able to go back home.”
Hearing Odeh speaking of forgiveness is especially startling when he admits having been incarcerated in Israeli prison for 17 years because of his involvement in the struggle against the occupation.
Today most of the structures are used by illicit lovers and drug abusers, something the former inhabitants of Lifta try to prevent by building fences around their abandoned properties.
“What importance do these stones have for the Israelis when they can sell the land and make one thousand dollars from it?” asks Odeh heatedly. “But these stones mean something to me, they tell the story of my life.” He points in the direction of the house where he, his father and his grandfather were born, describing its architecture as if it was still standing before his eyes.
Groups of activists, both Palestinian and Israeli, are fighting daily to preserve Lifta from the threat of destruction launched by the bulldozers as well as by natural elements. What Lifta needs is to be preserved as part of a collective memory which unites both communities.
Reconstruction on this historical site would further widen the rift between Palestinians and Israelis and deny the Palestinians not only the right of return, but the right to remember. “No one has the right to cancel the other,” says Odeh. “There is enough place for all of us, we can live together, but not under occupation.”