Why the Ruins of a Little Village Called Lifta Still Matter

In the Middle East stand the ruins of an ancient settlement known as Lifta. Archeological digs have traced its’ origins as far back as the Iron Age. It contains the remains of a court-yard home from the Crusader period at its centre and the ruins of several other beautiful homes, and once housed a vibrant and culturally rich community.

In the first half of the 20th century, it had a modern clinic, two coffee houses, schools, a mosque. Lifta was also well known for its fine embroidery. All of that changed in 1948 when the residents of this village were ethnically cleansed. It remains one of the only surviving testaments of that tragic era. But this, too, may change in a very short time.

Following the Nakba, or Catastrophe, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were violently expelled from their ancestral lands. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were razed to the ground in what is now known as Israel. Many had forests planted over them, with trees that are not indigenous to the region and that are susceptible to wildfires, especially thanks to climate change. Many others were taken over by Jewish Israelis with the support of Israeli law. But, in violation of international law, the former residents of these villages are not permitted to return. Many of the families still have the keys to the homes that were stolen from them.

In the 1980s, Israel designated Lifta as a nature reserve, and for decades it as been used by Israelis for recreation. An ancient pool fed by a natural spring became a popular swimming hole. But now the ruins of this ancient village are on the brink of being razed once and for all to make way for luxury villas, a shopping mall and a hotel. The UN had listed Lifta as a potential World Heritage Site, but since Israel left UNESCO in 2019, it is no longer interested in that highly desired heritage designation, especially if it may enshrine a piece of Palestinian history or reveal the crimes that emptied that village decades ago.

Lifta is important because it represented a visual example of the Nakba to Palestinians and Israelis alike. As Israel becomes more entrenched in its apartheid policies, it is symbolic of the lengths colonial settler ideology will go to erase history. And it isn’t just history we are talking about. At this very moment, Palestinian residents of the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are being forcibly expelled from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers and a biblical theme park. These struggles are what make the ruins of Lifta iconic.

Throughout history, colonial settler projects frequently targeted indigenous houses, burial sites, temples, villages and cities for demolition. The Spanish razed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and replaced it with Mexico City. The Americans carved the faces of four white men, known for their role in slavery and in Manifest Destiny, into the rockface of Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe (Six Grandfathers), one of the most sacred places to the Lakota in the Black Hills. Australian mining company Rio Tinto just recently destroyed a sacred Aboriginal site that was a 46,000-year-old rock shelter at Juukan Gorge.

Perhaps the destruction of Lifta is not on the same scale, but it bares striking similarities. This is of a piece with Israel’s ongoing attempt to erase Palestinian heritage, culture and history. And it enables the Israeli apartheid system to proceed with further demolitions and erasures, while pretending it isn’t destroying anything at all. Lifta still matters because it is a reminder that the Nakba never really ended.

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.