Lifta’s cultural cleansing
Challenging the politically charged practice of cultural heritage, from Lifta, the ’48 ruins of a Palestinian village in Israel, to UNESCO
International heritage protection for a stateless nation
What resembles a preservation and development project is in fact the ‘cultural cleansing’ of a historical site. Lifta, a Palestinian village in Israel, should instead be protected and considered a heritage site since its one of the last remaining pre-1948 Palestinian villages on Israeli territory one of the harsh reminders of the Naqba.
Near Jerusalem, the derelict village of Lifta captures the moment of destruction of Palestinian life in 1948, when Israeli forces conquered it. Lifta’s 2,000 villagers fled, mostly to East Jerusalem and the Ramallah area. Unlike many of the other 530 Palestinian villages conquered (and usually bulldozed) during the war, Lifta’s architecture remained largely intact. Several Jewish families illegally moved into former Palestinian homes. Some have now lived there for a number of decades. In another part of the village, people from the fringes of society have settled.
But several dozen houses in Lifta have remained empty. They stand as monuments, the last remains of a Palestinian urban culture within the borders of Israel.
Lifta is part of the ‘new’ West Jerusalem, while its fabric and architecture are typical of former Palestinian towns. Lifta stayed put, as if frozen in time. It is located below its surroundings; somehow existing beneath the surface of the city. It seems to occupy a different level in history, geography and society. Those who inhabit Lifta since 1948 are, according to the larger Israeli public opinion, the ‘others’. They live outside of law and order, and even outside vision, usually going about their shady business down below, near the village fountain.
A new development plan intends to turn Lifta into exclusive real estate. The plan aims to transform the village into an expensive residential area, with shopping facilities, a hotel and open green areas, while preserving its village atmosphere and keeping some of the original structures. A regional committee approved the plan as submitted to the Jerusalem Municipality Planning Committee in 2004.
It is of great significance that the project makes the village remains the central element of the new design, with dozens of them marked for preservation. In addition, the rich natural scenery forms a major component, too. The project adopts the physical structure of the village but ignores its history. The name of the village will be changed to Mei Naftuakh, a Jewish village mentioned twice in the Bible. As such, Lifta becomes another example of how planning and preservation projects are being used to create a fantasy Israeli heritage at the expense of Palestinian culture.
The trees, spring, terraces, natural stone, remaining houses (complete and incomplete), and the olive oil processing plant are all originally from Lifta. They even are considered characteristic. The plans are aware of these and other Palestinian-originated advantages and use them, through the practices of preservation, to elevate the tourism and commercial real-estate value of the project. The aesthetics and the architecture of the Palestinian ruins raise Lifta’s value, and therefore will be professionally safeguarded.
The project’s approach treats Lifta it as though it were almost sacred. It amounts to an effort to revive Lifta after 56 years of destruction, negligence, and natural decay. Lifta is to be reconstructed from its old materials. It is to be rebuilt around its historic core, as if the centre can somehow radiate an authentic spirit of the place. It seems that in the eyes of the planners, the larger, newer Lifta will duplicate the preserved kernel of Lifta’s original houses. Therefore, all of the area included in the plan will be built in the original architectural manner. One could say that Lifta is not only preserved, but also reproduced – many times over.
Here, we can see not only the familiar ‘making the desert bloom’ typology2 – building where there once was nothing – but also the expansion of constructed Israeli areas. As such, Lifta symbolises the final phase in the process of nation building, which was set in motion in the beginning of the 20th century.
Historian Benny Morris writes: ‘According to the UN Partition resolution, Jerusalem, with about 100,000 Jews and 50,000 Arabs, was to be an international zone, when the hostility erupted the Jewish neighbourhoods. […] At a certain point, the city’s Jewish districts were under almost complete siege. However, armed Jewish resistance fought the Arab neighbourhoods along the seam between the two communities and the semi-isolated Arab quarters in mostly Jewish western Jerusalem that were repeatedly hit. The depopulation of the Arab neighbourhoods in western Jerusalem began with the suburb village of Lifta […].
Ben-Gurion summarized what had happened in Jerusalem at a meeting of Mapai leaders on 7 February:’[…] Since Jerusalem’s destruction in the days of Romans, it has not been so Jewish as it is now. In many Arab districts in the west, one sees not one Arab. I do not assume that this will change what had happened in Jerusalem could as well happen in great parts of the country. Certainly, there will be great changes in the composition of the population of the country.’
Indeed, the original Palestinian inhabitants of Lifta are nowhere to be found in the development plans. Those who created and cultivated this space, their memories of the village, their exile and longing to return are not mentioned at all. Lifta shows how Zionist4 ideology is rooted in Israeli nation building activities.
UNESCO and destruction of heritage
The connection between destruction and nation building can be observed not just in the Israeli-Palestinian context but also elsewhere.
For example, the destruction of Europe during the Second World War. As a result of WWII, it became possible to configure new homogeneous nations along new borderlines, with new cities, and new landscapes.
More recently, in the Balkans, 153 mosques were vandalized, 802 residential buildings, and 67 churches and monasteries were destroyed. The cleansing of Kosovo from its Albanian population went hand in hand with the destruction of its heritage. After the 1999 NATO intervention, Kosovo-Albanians molested Serbian monasteries and churches in revenge.
In response to the destruction of heritage, UNESCO was founded in the late 1940s. Its original aim was to protect and preserve the built environment in times of war and national conflicts by the linking of cultural heritage to human rights, in particular the rights of those belonging to ethnic minorities.
The central idea of this international convention was that cultural heritage is important and necessary for future sustainability and that cultural diversity is a fundamental part of our society. As such, it reads:
‘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 source of life and inspiration.’
UNESCO treaties and resolutions evolved over time. For example, effort was made to extend the conceptualization and description of so-called ‘intangible heritage’. In this context, closer attention was paid to humankind, the dramatic arts, languages and traditional music, as well as to the informational, spiritual and philosophical systems upon which creations are based. UNESCO: ‘The concept of heritage in our time accordingly is an open one, reflecting living culture every bit as much as that of the past.’
The different UNESCO treaties are undersigned by world nations, including Israel, and this makes one wonder what would have happened when these words and ideas would have been implemented into the Israelian landscape, in an attempt to preserve the Palestinian heritage.
When considering the protection of Lifta, two main points of the treaties are relevant. The first is that cultural heritage sites includes monuments as well as ordinary environments and their objects, such as streets, shops, gardens, dwellings, and not just the objects but also its social structure: ‘The cultural heritage is the entire spirit of a people in terms of its values, actions, works, institutions, monuments and sites. The definition of a cultural site, which in former times was limited to religious monuments and those relating to political authority, has been extended: it now includes common or garden constructions such as dwellings, workshops and tiny shops. Just as the period considered to be worthy of interest now includes the 19th and 20th centuries.’
The second is that not just the ancient past is to be preserved, but also recent history. Furthermore, the convention lays out: ‘A city’s future should be based on its identity and particular features in order to preserve what may be called the ‘urban landscape’. This ‘urban heritage’ should be the starting-point for the development of all urban policy. The heritage and its accumulation over time –the history of its buildings, streets, districts and residents –should be regarded as the force and foundation of all sustainable development of historic cities and of their future. In view of the special, elemental role of culture in the quality of life, strategies should be worked out to protect historic centres and promote spaces for encounter and exchange so that the city’s cultural identity may be grounded in its history, architecture, plurality and diversity. This should enable the development of the historic heritage of cities to be regarded as a vector for sustainable development.’
The international community has played a crucial role in preserving cultural heritage through the implementation of treaties, especially in cases of stateless nations. The spirit of the convention demands interference in the light of the destruction of memory at Lifta.
As a historic site the village offers opportunities to re-interprete the past of both the Palestinian and Israeli nations. Lifta has a lasting value in its own right, as it can link restitution to the right of return. Moreover, its preservation will be an opportunity to assert the restoration of dignity in the Palestinian as well as the Jewish community. Finally, by halting the new development in Lifta, UNESCO will affirm its global credibility in response to cultural cleansing.
Published in Volume magazine n.11 ‘CITIES UNBUILT’ (2006)