“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” 

– UNESCO

Lifta

The conference, Reconstruction of Memory, organised by FAST (the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory in Israel), took place in Amsterdam on May 14th, 2006.

With the conference, which provided wide-ranging perspectives on the issues of planning and conservation in Israel and elsewhere (especially the Balkans and South Africa), FAST successfully launched its new campaign for an alternative reconstruction of the Palestinian village of Lifta. In contrast to the proposed luxury development currently planned for rich Jewish settlers, FAST calls for the return of the Palestinian community that lived in Lifta before Jewish militia forced them to flee in 1948.

As the conference made clear, this is entirely possible, since the village, which lies on the outskirts of Jerusalem on the Tel Aviv road, has remained largely abandoned since the forced evacuation; photographs show a picturesque cluster of deserted stone Islamic buildings in a natural setting of great beauty. Moreover, many of the refugees from the village and their descendants live just a couple of kilometres away, in East Jerusalem and Ramallah – one of them, Yacoub Odeh, spoke at the conference. Yet while the luxury development plan aims to carefully preserve, and actually replicate, the ‘authentic’ stone buildings of Lifta, the people who built them are to be dispossessed a second time – this time of their hope to return, as well as of their last traces in the village. The Israeli renovation project that aims to turn Lifta into an expensive and exclusive Jewish residential area will reinvent its history in the process, even giving it the settlement a new name.

FAST aims to provide an alternative to this plan, which, by negating the existence of the Palestinian Liftawis who want to return to their homes, destroys all possibility for reconciliation. As a means of reviewing the issues involved in the Lifta case, the conference was a vital first step in the process, and the reconstruction of Lifta’s map from photographs, drawings and eyewitness accounts, which is also being coordinated by FAST, will provide the practical counterpart of this theoretical grounding. FAST will use these activities as the basis for developing planning solutions which will preserve not just buildings, but the culture that created them, and which may be relevant to many other regions of the world struggling with issues of multiculturalism. (more stuff on future lifta activities aims here)

Speakers at the conference were: FAST’s Malkit Shoshan, who made a strong case for invoking UNESCO protection for Lifta, and drew interesting parallels between the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the postwar reconstruction of Europe; Yacoub Odeh, a Lifta refugee, activist and alternative tour guide, who gave a detailed and eloquent account of the village life that the militia swept away in 1948; Andrew Herscher, an expert on wartime destruction and peacetime reconstruction in the Balkans, who framed the use of demolition as a weapon in a European context; Khaldun Bshara, a Palestinian architect working on reconstruction within the occupied territories; Zvi Efrat, an Israeli architect, who spoke about the Zionist project to erase Palestinian memory through the appropriation of their villages and ruins; Eitan Bronstein, of the Jewish activist group Zochrot, which campaigns for awareness of the Palestinian Naqba (‘catastrope’) in the Jewish memory; Shmuel Groag, an Israeli planner, who presented the case of the destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya to illustrate the need for multi-level planning and documentation to provide a solution for Lifta: and Ciraj Rassool, whose work with the District 66 Museum in Capetown neatly connects the issues of folk memory and land claims – and therefore, return.

Extracts from the presentations:

“There are three questions I’d like to raise. What are the criteria for ordinary environments to be protected? If history is written by the victors, how can the losers’ heritage be protected? And how can the planning community address the political and ideological abuses of planning?”

– Malkit Shoshun, director, FAST

“In all Zionist literature, you find the same jump in time, from the Biblical era to the Zionist period. This jump, which is intended to show ‘proof’ of ownership, necessarily avoids all mention of the Islamic period. In contrast with the Zionist project, which has documented itself from the beginning, there is very little documentation of the Palestinian heritage – and much of what there is has been hidden in Israeli archives.”

  • Shmuel Groag, planner

“Naqba is the great tragedy of the Palestinians, but it’s also the history of the Jews living in Israel. Yet there are few accounts of the Naqba in Hebrew, so Zochrot publishes them. The right of Palestinians to return should be the basis of every future solution in Israel. Without return, there can be no reconciliation.”

  • Eitan Bronstein, activist, Zochrot

“I want to talk not about the destruction of memory, but about the construction of forgetfulness, through the Zionist appropriation of Arab ruins and villages. Ancient ruins and recent ruins are all mixed together in the Israeli imagination; even acoustic walls are now constructed to look like ruins. From 1967 on, all Israeli architecture has this aggressive military profile, yet at the same time a Mediterranean, Muslim appearance.”

– Zvi Ephrat, architect

“There’s a very complex relationship between architecture and violence. Violence is said to destroy memory, but violence can also be sponsored to legitimise or be an instrument of memroy. In particular, violence can be legitimised through the ethnicity of destroying certain kinds of architecture, especially religious architecture. This way, violence gains a cultural meaning.”

  • Andrew Hirscher, architecture professor and expert on architecture and war

“This photo is of Fatma Aqel, who was 20 years old when she was forced to leave Lifta. Five years ago, her house was demolished. The Palestinian people are living from Naqba to Naqba; we are always in Naqba.”

Yacoub Odeh, Lifta refugee, activist, and alternative tour guide

“Palestinian architecture is still a target for Israelis. Conservation work is made difficult because of weak laws – the British Mandate states that only pre-1700 buildings need to be preserved, so Ottoman-era structures can be bulldozed. And there’s no money for conservation. Our unemployment is 50% in the villages, 30% in the towns, so we ask instead for money for job creation, not conservation, and we revive the old, labour-intensive techniques. Our work makes a huge difference: in Hebron, which was under pressure from Jewish settlers, we brought back 4,000 Palestinians to the Old City.”

  • Khaldun Bshara, conservation architect, RIWAQ

“What is the relationship between return and memory? District Six was a part of Capetown razed to the ground in the 1960s and 1970s, to create a new, middle-class area. The District Six Museum project arose almost incidentally, out of land claims. The museum has been both a means of healing and a resource for the restitution process, and, in its next phase, Hands On District Six, it will see the return of those forcibly removed from their land.”

  • Ciraj Rassool, District Six Museum Foundation