A day after the ex-Education Minister of Israel, Shay Piron, voiced his opinion that the Nakba should be taught in schools, I decided it was high time to pay a visit to the village of Lifta. Lifta was a wealthy Palestinian village on the edge of West Jerusalem and had a population of 3,000 in 1948. In 1947, at the start of the war’s hostilities, the Arab Higher Committee ordered the city to send away its women and children. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 (known among Palestinians as the Nakba), the militant Zionist group Lehi attacked a coffeeshop in Lifta, killing 7. After the attack, many of the remaining inhabitants of Lifta fled. By the end of the war, the nascent Israel Defence Force had evacuated every last villager. Today, Lifta borders the Jewish neighborhood Givat Shaul and is the only remaining Palestinian village that was depopulated during 1948 which wasn’t either inhabited by Israelis or destroyed.
Today, it’s hard to deny the natural beauty of the site, which is now officially an Israeli nature preserve. Anemones and cyclamens cover the ground, and almond, fig and olive trees bloom in the valley. Syrian woodpeckers and gorgeous Eurasian blue jays hop from branch to branch. Orthodox Jewish teenagers were swimming in the natural springs where the town square once stood, and Israeli families often come for picnics. But then you step inside the cool darkness of one of the dozens of stone houses that remain and 1948 comes rushing back.
Many of the houses feature graffiti, some of it beautiful and some of it despicable. Inside one of the homes was a gorgeous and fading mural featuring the Dome of the Rock and a dove. As I walked out of that house, I caught a first glimpse of the village’s mosque on top of which was scrawled in green spray paint “מוות לערבים” (death to Arabs). At first I thought that my Hebrew was lacking – that it had to be a mistake. As I sounded out the letters like an Israeli kindergartener, I realized that I was right. It’s a sickening thing to write anywhere, but in such an insensitive location? I was furious. I’m searching for some insight to provide here, but sometimes, there are no words.
With the Israeli government’s long running attempt to Judaize the city, It’s a wonder that Lifta still remains – just a few minutes on foot from downtown Jerusalem. As recently as 2012, an attempt to build luxury apartments on the site was rejected by the Jerusalem District Court. For now Lifta is safe as a ghostly open air history museum, but no one can say whether the next inevitable round of apartment proposals will be thwarted or will cause Lifta’s second destruction.
Today, some of the original residents of Lifta live just down the road in East Jerusalem. Others live in Ramallah and Jordan. Though they’re not allowed to renovate their homes and live there, they come sometimes to tidy up their family homes, some of which have become a shelter for Jerusalem’s homeless community, and to make sure the weeds in the ancient cemetery don’t grow too high. They come, and are able to instantly identify the houses where they lived, even after 67 years. They reminisce about the two schools, one for boys and one for girls, the olive oil press, and weddings that took place in the center of town by the spring fed pool.
Lifta is a symbol of Israel’s history and of Israel’s moral obligation to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. Those who believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began with the occupation in 1967 are mistaken. It goes back so much further, to 1948, to the first war between the Jews and Arabs, to Lifta.