Notes from an Ethnically-Cleansed Village

Just past the edge of west Jerusalem a hill descends down into a small valley. Visible from the highway above, large crumbling houses casually dot the hillside, making up what was once the Palestinian village of Lifta.


Of the many villages that were cleared of their Palestinian population during the 1948 Nakba, Lifta is the only one not to have been completely destroyed or repopulated in subsequent years.[1] It sits like a frozen moment in time, beneath the rumble of traffic taking cars to and from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and West Bank settlements.

Arriving in Jerusalem from Ramallah, we walk from the bus station near the old city and half an hour through west Jerusalem: past the Mahane Yehuda market, down Jaffa street, past the Central Bus Station. After asking for directions, we are still not sure if we are on the right street, but we can see the village down to the left. “Okay, we just have to turn left at some point,” we conclude. But there is nowhere to turn left. Like Jerusalem does not want us to turn left. Finally we walk all the way back and try a different approach.


Eventually we find the small road that descends down. There is no sign except one small one when you are already there. We pass a construction site with rumbling bulldozers, perhaps a harbinger of Israel’s plans for the area. A 2004 plan calls for the construction of a luxury neighborhood in Lifta that would preserve some of the original structures, to be carried out by private developers.[2] Of course, such a development would be for Israeli citizens and the upper classes that could afford to live there—not the Palestinians whose homes these once were.

We expected Lifta to be more difficult to find, that we’d have to walk through some forest until we finally came upon the ruins of a former home. But it isn’t, it is barely secluded, and once we figure out how to reach it, it is eerie how out-of-sight this place seemed moments before. But this is a different kind of invisibility. We descend down to a natural spring for which the village is known, and are a little surprised to find that it is not deserted but peopled by a group of ultra-orthodox boys in their underwear swimming around rather jovially. It is obvious that we are the only non-Jews (or at least, non-orthodox) and the only women, so they eye us with curiosity and a trace of suspicion.


We climb up to a crumbling house and hesitantly walk in. It is mildewy and cool, and the dark is a sharp contrast to the sun beating down outside. We are surprised to find a bed, a small table, some chairs—everything covered in dust. We have heard that these houses are frequented by drug users.


In a second, double-story house, the rooms are enormous. In the first room, the walls are plastered with newspaper, and there is a colorful mural depicting a bountiful horn of fruit with various pioneer-types painted around it, and Hebrew words scrawled across. An empty baby carriage sits idly. These are surely remnants from Israelis that have frequented the site, but they almost perfectly symbolize Lifta’s much longer history.

A large window looks out onto the valley and the settlement beyond. In a second room, a row of beds is to be found, with bedding in various states of disarray. I bring my camera to my face to take a picture of this absurd and somehow beautiful space, but my friend suddenly jumps back from the window with a start. “Let’s get out of here. Naked man!” Confused, we stumble back out into the sun. Apparently, a man entirely devoid of clothing had been staring up at us from outside. We want to follow the path in front of this house, that leads to other structures on this hillside, but the naked man is there, surveying us. He seems to be well aware we are exploring and intends to make us as uncomfortable as possible.

We decide to take a break by exploring the opposite hillside. Once there we look back and see a man enter one of the houses (Unsure if it is the same one as before). Moments later he emerges in full dress clothes, buttoning up a clean white shirt.  He leaves the dilapidated building as if heading out to begin any normal day.


Whether our previous surveyor is still there or not, we decide to head back, determined not to let one silly man’s nakedness prevent us from exploring a stretch of land that belongs no more to him than it does to us.

In one house, the biggest we have been able to enter, a giant crater opens up in the middle of the floor. We stick to the edges, wondering how easily the hole was made, also awed by such a large space opened up by what seems to be a very small hole in the roof. I read later an account of a Palestinian from Lifta, who says that once the village was cleansed of its inhabitants, Israeli soldiers blew holes in the roofs of the houses to make them unlivable.[3]




From a window, the newness of Jerusalem’s settlements seems so distant and yet we know it is close.


We head back towards the spring to eat our basic lunch of bread and hummus and tomato. As we sit, a very tall man saunters by with purpose, shirtless and wearing only long white cotton pants. As he passes I see his face, likely aged more than his actual years, and the stringy hair to his shoulders. Moments later, he stomps back, soaking wet from an apparent dip in the spring. Our heads turn as he squeaks by, and we watch as he disappears back towards the crumbling houses. If we didn’t know better, we might think this near-ghost town has its own cast of actual quirky ghosts.

Some historic sites have been preserved with intention, this one–by mere neglect, by a desire to forget. And yet the space is frequented both by Jewish Israelis wishing to assert their claim over the space, and by the undesirables of that same society, searching for respite from the gaze of their peers.


It remains to be seen whether Lifta’s stone structures and the history housed inside them will be appropriated or demolished under the guise of urban upgrading.


To learn more or get involved:

[1] Hasson, Nir. “Israel’s last remaining abandoned Arab village, Lifta, gets reprieve as judge voids development plans.” Haaretz. Feb. 7, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sherwood, Harriet. “The ruined village Palestinians will never forget.” The Guardian. 29 May 2011.

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