Monday, November 09, 2009

Lifta

In 1944/45, Lifta was a large Palestinian village of 2,550 residents. Like most Palestinian villages, it was depopulated in 1948 as part of the sweeping ethnic cleansing that accompanied Israel's creation. Perhaps the most unusual thing about the village is simply that so much of it is left. Many of the buildings were destroyed, but many others were left standing, although 60 years of brush, shrubs, and littering Israelis have taken their toll.
I don't really know all that much about Lifta, but then, that's not really the point. I didn't go to this village because it is somehow unique, quite the opposite. Lifta matters to me precisely because it is simply one cleansed village among hundreds. There were more than 2,000 people living here, and I know almost nothing about those individuals, either, but again, that's not the point. They were just people, only 2,500 out of the roughly 700,000 Palestinians who were driven or (if they were lucky) fled into exile in '48. My hope is to recreate a virtual Lifta on the web, so people who want (or need) to remember can see this beautiful village, 'walk' among its buildings and history, and have a chance to connect in some limited way with the Palestinian families who lived here. It's a big project, though, and it's going to take a long time, so for now I'm simply appending the brief pre-1948 history and description by Walid Khalidi, and the summary by Benny Morris of the village's depopulations. Take a few minutes to read what they've written, and perhaps a few more to view my photographs, and then please join me in a prayer for the rebirth of this beautiful village, and the swift return of its exiled people to their empty homes.
From All That Remains, by Walid Khalidi:
"The village stood on the slope of a steep hill and faced north-northwest, overlooking Wadi Salman (see photo). The
Jerusalem—Jaffa highway ran immediately southwest of it, and dirt paths linked it to a group of neighboring villages.
Although the identification of the village has been debated by biblical scholars, Lifta is believed to have been established
on the site of Mey Neftoach (Mey Nephtoah), a source of water near Jerusalem (Joshua 15:9, 18:15). The site retained
this name during the Roman period and was called Nephtho during the Byzantine era. Almost nothing is known about
the village in the early Islamic period; however, during the Crusades the village was referred to as Clepsta. In 1596, Lifta
was a village in the nahiya of Jerusalem (liwa’ of Jerusalem) with a population of 396. It paid taxes on a number of crops,
including wheat, barley, olives, and fruit, well as on orchards and vineyards. [llut. and Abd.:l15] In 1834, the village
was the site of a battle in which the Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha defeated local rebels led by a prominent local
ruler, Shaykh Qasim al-Ahmad. [D 8/2:103] The family of Qasim al-Ahmad remained powerful, however, for years after
this battle. They ruled the region southwest of Nablus from their fortified villages (Dayr Istiya’ and Bayt Wazan) some 40
km due north of Lifta. [Scholch 1986:173, 196, 201-203] In the late nineteenth century, Lifta was situated on the side of a
steep hill, with a spring and rock-cut tombs to the south. [SWP(1881) 111:18]
The village houses were built mainly of stone, along the contours of the hill. The old streets of the village also ran in
curvilinear fashion. The village expanded markedly towards the end of the Mandate; construction spread east, up the
slope of Mount Khallat al-Tarha, linking the village with the buildings of the Rumayma neighborhood in the northwestern
quarter of West Jerusalem. Construction also expanded towards the foot of the hill in the south and southwest, along
the Jerusalem-Jaffa highway. Lifta’s population was predominantly Muslim; its Christian residents were estimated at 20
out of a total of 2,550 in the mid-1940s. The village had a mosque, a shrine for Shaykh Badr (a local sage), and a few
shops at its center. It also had an elementary school for boys and a girls’ school that was founded in 1945. There were, in
addition, two coffeehouses and a social club. The village was in effect a suburb of the city of Jerusalem, and its economic
ties with the city were strong. The farmers of Lifta marketed their produce in Jerusalem markets and took advantage of
the city’s services. Their drinking water was drawn from a spring in Wadi al-Shami. Their lands were planted in grain,
vegetables, and fruit, including olives and grapes; olive trees covered 1,044 dunums. The rainfed agriculture of the village
was concentrated in Wadi al-Shami, in the depressions lying to the southwest of the village, and on the slopes. In 1944/45
a total of 3,248 dunums was planted in cereals."
From The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, by Benny Morris:
"The following day [after a Jewish mob fired Arab houses and a theatre in West Jerusalem], the IZL [Irgun] warned the mukhtar of Lifta, a suburb-village just west of Romema, that the village would be bombed if any Jews were harmed in Romema...On 4 December, some Arab families evacuated Lifta...Lifta was apparently told by Arab authorities to evacuate its women and children and to prepare to house a militia company...More Arab families were seen evacuating Romema...
The first mass evacuations of Jerusalem neighborhoods took place in December 1947 - January 1948 from the suburb-villages of Lifta and Sheikh Badr, and the Arab area of Romema. Initially, Haganah patrols were ordered to patrol the outskirts of Lifta, not to enter the village, and to 'put up posters'...But the patrols occasionally sparked firefights with the village's militiamen, and [Irgun] and LHI [Stern Gang] operations, from the start, were more aggressive. [It seems reasonable to assume that operations 'more aggressive' than armed patrols, carried out by one sporadically terrorist and one consistently terrorist group, involved killing Palestinians]. Already in mid-December, irregulars from nearby villages had taken up positions in Lifta, to defend the site but also to harass neighbouring Jewish areas. The older activists wanted peace but the youngsters, according to an HIS [Haganah Intelligence Service] informant, 'were all activist'. By the beginning of January, Lifta was suffering from a shortage of bread and already on 28 December women and children were reported evacuating the village. By 1 January, most of the villagers had apparently left (for Ramallah), but armed irregulars or Arab Legionnaires were still in place. On or around 15 January, the villagers were ordered to return home and apparently some, or most, did. A week later, the village was visited by 'Abd al Qadir Husseini, who ordered the menfolk to stay put and 'the children, women and old' to leave. Women and children were seen leaving. The Stern Gang raided the village and blew up three houses on 29 January. By early February, all or almost all of Liftah's inhabitants were back in Ramallah (where they complained that the locals were 'mocking them' and that, in Lifta, they had been trapped between the irregulars, who used their homes to attack Jews, and the Jews, who destroyed their homes and killed them in retaliation).
The cycle of violence that precipitated Romema's evacuation begain with attacks on Jewish traffic leaving Jerusalem and the Haganah killing on 24 December of Atiya 'Adel, the owner, from Qaluniya village, of the petrol station at Romema who, using a motorcycle, [was believed to double] as a scout and informant for the Arab irregulars about Jewish convoys. The following day, villagers avenged the attack by throwing a grenade at a Jewish bus. From then on, there were daily exchanges of fire in and around Romema (and Lifta) and the Haganah, Irgun and Stern Gang repeatedly raided the two sites. Romema was struck by two Haganah raids on the night of 26 December and by the Irgun (which destroyed a petrol station and coffee shop, killing at least five Arabs on 27 December. Some inhabitants apparently evacuated under British protection and in orderly fashion. By the beginning of January, HIS reports spoke of Romema as empty, though some militiamen had apparently stayed and inhabitants kept returning, at least for brief visits, to inspect their property. Threatening letters and telephone calls by the Haganah and Stern Gang also, apparently, contributed to the neighbourhood's depopulation."
NOTE: The photos of Lifta I took on this trip are at http://news.webshots.com/album/575423568GUQPAB . PalestineRemembered.com also has great pictures of the village http://www.palestineremembered.com/Jerusalem/Lifta/index.html#Pictures ; I suspect the oral histories are even better, but they're in Arabic, so I can't be sure. You might also want to check out my blog at justiceforpalestine.blogspot.com, which has all of the posts for all of my Israel/Palestine trips since 2004.

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