Lifta: A symbol of the Palestine – by Antoine Raffoul
by Antoine Raffoul
On 27 April 1989, Yasser Arafat, while in exile in Tunis, wrote a letter to the
Director-General of UNESCO at the time Federico Mayor expressing, in
simple terms, the Palestinian peopleʼs wish to play an active part, amongst
peace-loving peoples, in forging links between civilised nations in the fields of
education, science and culture. In essence, that letter was Palestineʼs
application for membership to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Twenty two years later, UNESCO, during its plenary session in Paris last
Monday 31 October voted overwhelmingly (and to a standing ovation from
majority members) to admit Palestine as a full member by a vote of 107 for
and 14 against with 52 abstentions.
Needless to say that among those members who voted against admission
were the United States and its ʻeternalʼ ally Israel. Actions taken by these two
members as a consequence of this vote amounted to the US withdrawing its
22% share (nearly $80 million) of the UNESCO annual budget; Israel
withholding nearly $90 million (37% of the PAʼs annual budget) in annual tax
revenues it collects on behalf of the PA. In addition, and in line with its
expansionist policies, Israel announced its intention to build 2000 more
Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.
In majestic contrast to this illegal intervention and on the other side of
Jerusalem lies the beautiful Palestinian village of Lifta straddling the cityʼs
western hills like a string of pearls and more contextual and more respectful of
its gentle setting than any of the 2000 settlements on the other side (and
thousands more already built on occupied Palestine land).
Earlier this year, we filed an application to The Wold Monument Fund, based
in New York City, to include Lifta on its 2012 World Monuments Watch List.
The WMF was chosen because it accepts nominations from individuals,
institutions and organisations without the need for national endorsement.
In preparing the application, we carried out extensive research on Lifta, its rich
history, its unique architectural, cultural and social character and found it to be
an embodiment of everything Palestinian – including Palestineʼs Nakba.
The tragedy surrounding Lifta is no less important an element in any
nomination, than its special architectural character because Lifta, unlike most
other urban environments, was built by its own inhabitants who also owned
the houses and the nearly 1200 hectares of land surrounding it. The cubist
forms of Liftaʼs houses with their domed rooftops are only possible to be
achieved because of the natural materials the inhabitants used: the special
Jerusalem stone. This unique cluster of buildings seem as if imbedded in the
gentle slopes around them without a single house vying for recognition over
its neighbour. They are a perfect example of how to build into the natural hills
of Jerusalem and in total harmony with the physical environment. Lifta has
been left empty and deserted by the controlling authority to face demolition by
speculative developers. As a last act of architectural rape, gangs of drug
addicts and squatters have been roaming the village and destroying its
elegant domes to prevent habitation by Palestinians should they return.
Alas, Lifta will see darker days ahead, should efforts to save it from demolition
There are volumes of printed material on Lifta and suffice it to say that the
reader would only need to enter its name in any search engine to learn all
about the efforts to save it and, sadly, about colonial efforts to destroy it.
So, it was with excited energy that we, as architects and humanists, worked
hard to complete our application to the WMF earlier this year. Appended to
our application were illustrations, historical documents, indicative plans,
incredible photographs. The application also included our ʻSave Liftaʼ petition
which attracted more than 2,958 international signatures. We intentionally
closed the Petition at this number as it represented the population of Lifta in
1948 when it was attacked, by Zionist underground militias advancing towards
Jerusalem. Had we kept the Petition open (we also had a WMF deadline to
meet), there would have been hundreds of thousands more signatures on it.
The Watch criteria for assessment and eventual selection of entries were:
Significance, Urgency, Viability and Relevance. We believed that Lifta would
challenge and meet all of them hands down. Urgency was the most relevant
criteria of all in Liftaʼs case because, as is now well documented on the pages
of the Electronic Intifada, the London Guardian newspaper and elsewhere (log
on to www.1948.org.uk), the Israel Land Authority, which claims to own Lifta
and its land, has parcelled the properties (if that is not an architectural
massacre, then what is) for sale through a tendering processing, to private
developers to build more than 210 luxury housing units, with shops, hotels
and a museum for wealthy Jewish expatriates. Nearby and slightly below the
village, we learn of the construction of a secure tunnel being planned/built
connecting this site to the nearby Knesset building. The symbolism of this
intervention does not escape us.
All of this is being carried out under the nose of the remaining indigenous
inhabitants of Lifta and their descendants who have not been allowed to
return to their village although a good number of them have taken refuge in
East Jerusalem, a few kilometres away. Their diseased family members
cannot even be graced with a burial plot in Lifta. Even a ʻReturnʼ through
death has been prevented. Living in proximity to Lifta, and being buried in it,
we thought, would certainly help meet two more of the Watch criteria:
Relevance and Significance. In our submission for the nomination, we had
argued and included many more compelling reasons to meet these criteria..
On 11 February, the application was filed successfully and was duly checked
by the WMF office to ensure compliance and was confirmed to be ʻkosherʼ.
Decision date was given to be around the end of September 2011. Over the
few weeks following our submission, we called the offices of WMF to ensure
that all is well and that our application had been validated. We were assured
that the application was validated and accepted. It is crucial for us to
emphasize this validation to protect Lifta from any ʻpoliticalʼ derailment.
We were assured that the application was valid. The long wait began and it
seemed like an eternity. Anxiety before the ʻReturnʼ.
During the last week of September, the WMF website announced that the jury
have made their selection and the results will be announced on Wednesday
the 28th of September. On 1 October, a letter dated 29 September was sent to
us via email and signed by Erica Avrami, Director of Research and Education
at WMF. The crucial sentence was: “We regret that the Lifta Village was not
selected for inclusion in the 2012 Watch”.
The fact that Palestine and the village of Lifta have lived under occupation for
63 years, would drive anyone with a bit of sarcasm to thing that perhaps, and
only perhaps, there is a slight chance that Lifta was de-selected for ʻpoliticalʼ
reasons. Lifta is, after all, a ʻhot potatoʼ and is as symbolic of the Palestinian
tragedy as it is a physical manifestation of it.
It took us more than 24 hours before we gathered our breath to call the WMF
in New York and to speak to Ms Avrami. She took our call and we spoke in
general terms about the criteria used, the process employed and about the
distinguished jury members convened by the WMF to make the final selection.
We knew and believed that Lifta must have been up there with the best of
nominated sites, but then, we wished to play the role of the ʻdevilʼs advocateʼ
and ask Ms Avrami “Was the decision to exclude lifta a political decision?” Ms
Avrami responded without hesitation by saying that “I will have to check the
minutes of the Jury deliberations and come back to you”. We agreed that we
will put the main points of our conversation in an email and this included a set
of 5 questions, the most important of which was number Question 4:
“Were Politics involved in the selection process due to the sensitive
geographic position of Lifta in “disputed territory”. You promised to research
your ‘selection process notes’ for us on this issue. We would appreciate a
A few days passed without a response. So, we called New York and a left a
voice message. On 20 October (nearly two weeks after our telephone
conversation), Ms Avrami wrote us a letter confirming our worst fears:
“The Watch nomination for Lifta Village incorrectly located the site in the
Palestinian Territory, when it is in fact within the current borders of Israel.
Factual inaccuracies are something taken into consideration in the review and
Two facts are crucial here: the screening process of all applications back in
March would have raised that issue and dismissed the application outright;
secondly, Ms Avrami never mentioned any such reason during our frank and
open telephone conversation when we posed that question to her. She must
have known then and chose to keep it to herself.
We were now very concerned that a body like WMF or a person within that
organisation would decide where “the current borders of Israel are”. This
fundamental issue has now been thrown into the open, thanks to the Lifta
Our application clearly showed Liftaʼs coordinates on the map which
accompanied the application and positively placed it inside the ʻCorpus
Separatum” zone designated by UNRes 181.
We responded to this assertion by the WMF with a long email clarifying the
issue of UNres181 which designated Jerusalem as a “Corpus Separatum”,
and that the 1949 Armistice Lines are exactly that: Armistice Lines indicating
the cessation of hostilities until the warring parties reach agreement. We
included an extract of UNRes 181 Partition map showing where these
Armistice Lines lie.
In addition, we stated that any occupation by military force is illegal under
International Law and the Geneva Convention.
Our email attracted a response from Ms Avrami producing another shock in
this WMF nomination saga. Here is what we consider to be the mother of all
quotes from her 1 November letter:
“World Monuments Fund is a private, not-for-profit organization that
undertakes the World Monuments Watch as part of advocacy work on behalf
of heritage around the world. We are not an intergovernmental organization
that must abide by international conventions…”
With Palestineʼs admission to UNESCO a reality, we now aim to take up
Liftaʼs case with leading legal experts and historians in the hope that it may
not be sacrificed on the theatre of the absurd. We aim to continue this fight to
save Lifta with the aim of returning it to its indigenous owners. Many readers
will be forgiven for thinking that this is a pipe dream.
Many perhaps felt the same when Yasser Arafat submitted his application to
UNESCO back in 1989.
Antoine Raffoul is a Palestinian architect living and practising in London. He was born in Nazareth and was expelled with his family from Haifa in April 1948. He is the Founder and Co-ordinator of 1948: Lest.We.Forget. a campaign group for truth about Palestine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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