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The legend of Lifta lives on in Palestinian memories

posted Jul 8, 2010, 8:04 AM by Lifta Society   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 3:52 PM ]
This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey) on Tuesday April 28, 1998 

Hasan Ali Odeh, his age and his history etched in his tan face, stood on the roof of an ancient stone mosque and surveyed the green valley He pointed to the old burial ground, then, off to his right, the stone ruins of an olive pressing factory. With birds chirping, Odeh gazed across the valley dotted with swaying yellow wildflowers to a two-room house on the opposite hill.

 Odeh was born in that house in 1924, a quarter-century before the state of Israel was founded. This day as he made his way across the valley and up the steep, stony trail, he remembered his boyhood as vividly as the blue, cloudless sky overhead.

 "This road knows me," the 74-year-old man said, moving toward what remains of the house where he was born in a place called Lifta.

Ruins are all that is left of the old section of Lifta, one of the 418 Arab villages within Israeli territory that have disappeared from the map since May 14, 1948, the day Israelis celebrate as Independence Day and Palestinians curse as Al-Naqba , Arabic for "The Catastrophe."

As one of the larger Arab villages, Lifta is a place whispered about from the refugee camps on the West Bank to the Palestinian neighborhoods of New Jersey. "To me, Lifta is a legend," said Omar Khalil, a 23-year-old college student from Paterson, whose father, Dr. Tawfik Khalil, brought him here from New Jersey in 1982 as a young boy to show him the three-story stone home up the hill from the ruins of Old Lifta where he was born in 1939.

 Today, Lifta has been absorbed into Western Jerusalem, the houses of its newer section occupied by Jews and its lower section lying in ruin below the heavily trafficked Jaffa-Jerusalem Road that winds through the hills toward Tel Aviv.

 The Israelis argue that Palestinians abandoned the villages during the war that erupted in 1948; Palestinians say they were forced out in fear of their lives.

 The villages - some bulldozed for the sake of progress, like the one that lies beneath the runways of Ben Gurion International Airport, others occupied by Jewish families, still others ghost towns like the old section of Lifta - have become a lasting and emotional symbol of the Palestinian struggle.

 Survivors reach into musty cardboard boxes for deeds to properties they still consider their own. And many ex-press dreams of one day reclaiming the land their ancestors occupied for countless generations.

 Back in New Jersey on a Saturday morning earlier this month, Dr. Khalil, a vascular surgeon, sat in his Paterson office after an all-night shift at the trauma center of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center and pondered the fate of his people.

 "History is the answer, and we have experience with that," he said. "We were attacked 900 years ago by the whole Western world (during the Crusades), massacred and dispersed. But in 200 years, what happened?"

 "We got our country back," his son answered. "I'm going to teach my children, and they will teach their children about Lifta. And on and on until the day when it becomes free."

 Lifta, one of the larger Arab villages in 1948 with about 2,500 residents, is now a stylish hilltop neighborhood in Jerusalem. The massive headquarters of Israel's government TV station sits next door to the three-story house with the red-tiled roof where Dr. Khalil was born.

 The foundation of a huge office building is being dug next to a few blocks of residential apartment buildings. The two-story school where Hasan Ali Odeh learned to read is still there, dwarfed by a larger wing built after 1948.

 Down the hill in Old Lifta, Odeh pointed through a broken window to the room where he was born. The house, built sturdily of golden Jerusalem stone - his father was a mason - has held up better than some of the structures. After the Six-Day War in 1967, it was used as a yeshiva, where young Jews studied the Torah, but it has long since been abandoned.

 "I don't hate anyone," Odeh said when asked his feelings about the Jews. "But when I stand here and I think that the Jews took everything and they won't give anything back, I don't know. The feelings are very difficult."

 The war that broke out in 1948 followed years of tensions between the growing Jewish population and their Arab neighbors. There was violence on both sides. An Arab riot in 1929 left 133 Jews and 87 Arabs dead. Members of the paramilitary Stern group sprayed a coffee shop in Lifta with gunfire in December 1947, killing five patrons.

 Fifty years after fleeing their villages, the Palestinians are a refugee people, an estimated 7.7 million living in the wind. Roughly 3.3 million are registered with the United Nations refugee organization that manages numerous camps and employed Odeh for 34 years before his retirement in 1985.

 About 1.5 million Palestinians live on the West Bank, many in disconnected islands administered by the Palestin-ian Authority. Another million live in the overcrowded camps of the Gaza Strip, and yet another million live within Israel, descendants of the 115,000 Arabs who stayed put when the fighting broke out.

 Odeh did well working for the United Nations, building a comfortable two-story house on the main road between the West Bank town of Ramallah and Jerusalem. College graduation pictures of his six children line the entrance hall.

 He is proud of his children, all professionals and most living abroad, but he is wistful about how far they and other Palestinians live from their homeland. On the warm spring day while he walked the trails of Old Lifta, Odeh talked about studying at the local mosque as a very young boy. He pointed out the candy store where he'd stop on the way home for a little reward.

 In 1936, his father moved the family up the hill to a more modern structure overlooking the valley. There they stayed until 1948.

 "I came here once to see it, and the people said, `For what are you coming?'" Odeh recalled. "I said, `I want to see my house.' They said, `It is not your house. It was your house. Now go.'"

 Jonathan Lugaci, an Orthodox Jew born 23 years ago in what was once New Lifta, said he knew only vaguely of the Arab side of its history. As he stood with a group of relatives around a baby carriage that held his niece, preparing for a holiday outing during Passover week, he was philosophical about the land.

 "When the Messiah comes, if he returns the Arabs to this place, it's all right with me," Lugaci said. "If God puts me in Ramallah, it's okay. We are religious people, and we believe these things are up to God."

 Another woman, standing in the doorway of her two-story stone house built before 1948, said she was only renting the property and had nothing against the Arabs. A Jew who immigrated from Iraq, the woman said she had always lived side-by-side with Arabs.

 "I don't think about things like who lived here before," she said. "When I lived in Iraq, Arabs used to come to my house and eat, but now the Arabs are killing us and we are killing them. We are no longer friends."

 Behind the anger and the political debates that have divided Israelis and Palestinians for five decades, there is a painful yearning for the land that is expressed eloquently from the refugee camps to hallowed university halls.

 In his 1992 book, "All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948," Wa-lid Khalidi traced the roots of Lifta back to biblical times. He said it was called Nephtho by the Romans and Clepsta by the Crusaders.

 "The village was in effect a suburb of Jerusalem, and its economic ties with the city were strong," he wrote. "The farmers of Lifta (sold) their produce in Jerusalem markets and took advantage of the city's services."

 Tracing the tumultuous events of 1948, Khalidi cites the coffee shop attack and subsequent destruction of some homes in eastern Lifta as the reasons most residents fled. He quotes David Ben- Gurion, later Israel's first prime minis-ter but at the time chairman of the Jewish Agency, as saying in a Feb. 7, 1948, meeting, "From your entry into Jerusa-lem through Lifta-Romena, through Mahane Yehuda, King George Street and Mea Shearim, there are no strangers. One hundred percent Jews."

 Dr. Khalil from Paterson came from a prosperous family in Lifta, the son of Abdulkarim Khalil, a landlord who rented roughly 100 properties to tenants in the village.

 Dr. Khalil wasn't born yet when the British first acceded to the notion of a Jewish state in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, and he was too young to notice the tensions building between Arabs and their Jewish neighbors, who by World War II were moving into the area in ever-increasing numbers.

 Khalil said his family moved from Lifta shortly after the April 9, 1948, massacre at neighboring Deir Yassin.

 Israelis and Palestinians have debated what happened in that Arab village for decades - with heightened attention being paid in this anniversary year - but it is agreed that more than 100 Arabs died during fighting with Jewish militia called Haganah. Israelis say it was the result of a battle, a struggle for a key hilltop position. Palestinians say more than 200 men, women and children were slaughtered on a site near where Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, stands today.

 A recent report by the Zionist Organization of America, which included interviews with survivors on both sides, concluded that both Jews and Arabs used the incident for their own propaganda purposes. Israelis used the incident to scare Palestinians away and Arabs to try to draw support from surrounding Arab countries.

 In any case, Khalil's family left in a taxi with none of their belongings. They believed they would return in a week or two when things cooled down. They never did.

 In subsequent weeks, Khalil's father and brother joined the resistance movement, and he, his mother, Aisheh, and seven other brothers and sisters moved on to Ramallah. His mother sold the jewelry she was wearing to feed the children.

 The family ended up in a refugee camp in Jordan, where Khalil recalls pouring water into the cracked earth and watching scorpions scurry out. After some months, they returned to Ramallah, where his father rejoined the family and, with the help of an uncle living in the United States, built a new home. Khalil grew up in Ramallah, and the same benevolent uncle later paid the bills for his medical school training in Egypt.

 Khalil returned to Ramallah after school, working with refugees in the U.N. camps, but three weeks after the 1967 war started, he decided he'd had enough. He crossed into Jordan and emigrated to the United States.

 "I am a representative of this tragedy," Khalil said. "I've been through all parts of it. I think the Palestinian people have been fooled, misled and persecuted, first by our leadership, then by our Arab brothers, and lastly by the colonial powers, first Britain and then the United States."

 Khalil may be bitter, but he has escaped the legacy of Lifta more successfully than others.

 Kalandia, a U.N. refugee camp outside Ramallah on the West Bank - a 30-minute drive but a world away from the upscale suburbs of Jerusalem - is home to 6,710 Palestinians, according to Shaml, the Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Center in Jerusalem. It is one of 20 camps on the West Bank, a maze of plain concrete houses built tightly together and interspersed with dusty alleyways.

 In the sparsely furnished living room of one of those houses, Khalil Frhan sat and talked of his days in Lifta one late afternoon. Having spent the better part of the last 50 years in the camp, he has fond memories of the shade trees of his boyhood home.

 His skin burned a deep tan by outdoor construction work, Frhan now works as a security guard at a local bus depot for 17 shekels a day, about $5, or twice the cost of a pack of American cigarettes today in Jerusalem. His eldest son returned from abroad with some money four years ago and helped Frhan build this three-story house of concrete block, but the money ran out before it could be finished. He and six relatives live on the first floor, and the two top floors are vacant.

 In the living room, a simple wooden table is surrounded by worn sofas. A TV in the corner carries news in Arabic.

 "To whom do I go to ask for some work?" he asked rhetorically as he sipped spearmint tea from a clear cup and pulled on a cigarette provided by a translator. "I'm an old man, and who will take me? They want only the young."

 Frhan is unsure what year he was born in Lifta, but officials who needed to write something down on his papers decided it might be 1928. His parents, four brothers and two sisters left the city after Deir Yassin.

 "We moved right away," Frhan said. "If we didn't move, they would kill us like Deir Yassin. We were like an island in the sea. We were surrounded."

 Shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967, Frhan went back to Lifta to visit.

 "The valley is beautiful, but the houses are ruined," he said forlornly. "You see houses without roofs. They de-stroyed it."

 After visiting the valley, Frhan went up the hill, to what the natives call New Lifta, and knocked on the door of his family home. An Israeli soldier answered, spoke to Frhan for a few minutes and then brought his mother to the door-way.

 "She said I could go into the house and take out the gold I had hidden there," he said. "I laughed, because there was no gold. But in the end, I didn't get inside."

 As Frhan sat reminiscing and smoking, barefoot children played in the narrow alleys of the camp in the soft sun-light at day's end. Arabic graffiti supporting PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat marked the white walls. One poster showed a drawing of a scale, balanced on one side by the Star of David and the other by a dead dove of peace, hanging by a noose.

 "They don't know about peace," Frhan said of the Israelis. "At first when they came to this land they said, `Please, give us a place to live.' Then when they were stronger, when we were asleep, they took everything."

 Frhan wore a faded suit jacket even though the day was hot. He was clean and his thin, gray mustache was trimmed neatly. He recognizes he is one of a select group whose boyhood memories of Lifta are still sharp.

 "The people born after 1948, they don't know everything about Lifta, but those of us who were there before the war can tell you anything about the village," he said solemnly. "We know every house, and whom it belonged to."