Earlier this year, the group 1948 Lest We Forget filed an application to the World Monuments Fund (WMF) to include the Palestinian village of Lifta in its 2012 World Monuments Watch List.
The WMF was chosen because it accepts nominations from individuals, institutions and organizations without the need for national or state endorsement. The fund is an independent organization registered as a charity and based in New York City. It is concerned with saving some of the world’s most treasured places, whether great buildings, sites or singular monuments.
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.
The tragic history of Lifta is no less important an element in its nomination than its special architectural character. This is because Lifta, unlike most other urban environments, was built by its own inhabitants who also owned the houses and the nearly 1,200 hectares (approximately 3,000 acres) which belonged to it.
The construction of Lifta’s cube-like buildings topped by their domed roofs was only possible because of the use of the single natural material the inhabitants employed: the special Jerusalem stone. The unique cluster of buildings seem to be embedded into the gentle slopes of the hills around them, and not one house vies for recognition over its neighbor. These houses are a perfect example of how to build a community in total harmony with the physical environment without pretense or architectural pastiche.
Since its depopulation in 1948-49, Lifta has been kept deserted by the Israeli authorities and it currently faces demolition by speculative developers. As a last act of architectural violation, gangs of drug addicts and squatters have been roaming the village and destroying the elegant domed roofs in an attempt to prevent a return by Lifta’s legitimate owners.
Alas, Lifta will see darker days ahead, should genuine efforts to save it from demolition fail.
Making the case for Lifta
Our application to the WMF included many illustrations, historical documents, indicative plans and some superb photographs taken at various periods of Lifta’s recent history. An important document included with the application was our “Save Lifta” petition which attracted 2,958 signatures from around the world. This number, at which point the petition was closed in time to file the application, symbolically represented the number of Lifta inhabitants in 1948 before it was ethnically cleansed. Had we kept the petition open, we were certain it would have attracted thousands of other signatures.
The 2012 WMF Watch List criteria for assessment and eventual selection of entries to its prestigious list include the significance of the site, the urgency of the conditions and the viability of feasible action (“World Monuments Fund, Nomination Guidelines”).
In our application, we carefully addressed them one by one with supporting material to show that Lifta deserved recognition and protection.
Of the above criteria, urgency was the most relevant in Lifta’s case because, as is now well-documented in reports published by The Electronic Intifada, The Guardian and elsewhere, the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), which claims to own Lifta and its surrounding terrain, has parcelled the village land for sale by tender 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, it has been reported that a secure tunnel is being planned and built to connect this site to the nearby Knesset (Israeli parliament) building for use by VIPs and state officials when the future development is completed.
All of this has been planned to be carried out under the noses of the few surviving original Lifta owners and their many descendants who have not been allowed to return to the village — although a good number of them have taken refuge only a few kilometers away.
Deceased family members cannot even be graced with a burial plot in Lifta. Even a return through death has been prevented. Living in proximity to Lifta, and being buried in it, we thought, would certainly meet the WMF 2012 Watch List’s two other criteria: relevance and significance. In our submission, we had included many more compelling reasons to meet these criteria.
On 11 February, the application was successfully filed and later confirmed by the WMF to be valid and in order. A decision date, we were told, was to be expected towards the end of September 2011. Due diligence required us to contact the WMF to ensure that all was on track. This was again confirmed.
During the last week of September, the WMF website announced that the jury had made their selection and the results would be announced on 28 September. On 1 October, we received by email a letter dated 29 September signed by Erica Avrami, Director of Research and Education at WMF. It included this statement: “We regret that the Lifta Village was not selected for inclusion in the 2012 Watch.”
Significance of Lifta as a heritage site
Lifta, for us, symbolizes not only the cultural, architectural and contextual importance of a heritage site, but also its political significance. Architectural history is full of such examples, whether single buildings, or a cluster of them, where the political element in fact played an important part in their formation and evolution.
Lifta, without doubt, is considered a “hot potato” because it is as much a symbol of the Palestinian tragedy as it is a physical manifestation of it. Could it have been, we tried to guess, Lifta’s “political” dimension which de-classified it from the Watch List?
In order that a future re-nomination of Lifta may be attempted, it was important for us to get an absolute understanding of the reasons why Lifta was de-selected in order that we may avoid derailment in the future. We spoke to Avrami at the WMF and, after a brief discussion, we asked her, “was the decision to exclude Lifta a political one?” The answer came in an email about two weeks later and it confirmed 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 [our emphasis]. Factual inaccuracies are something taken into consideration in the review and selection process.”
It is worth repeating here that our application was accepted and validated back in February and there were no questions raised at the time, or since, about Lifta’s geographical location. Our application had clearly showed Lifta’s coordinates on the map which accompanied the application and positively placed it inside the Corpus Separatum zone designated by the 1947 Partition Plan under UN Resolution 181.
As the reason for disqualifying Lifta is seen now to be its geographical location and not necessarily the other criteria, we felt that we were about to be embroiled in a debate on an issue which sits at the core of the Israel-Palestine question.
For the sake of historical correctness, we had no choice but to rely on international conventions to safeguard Lifta from physical oblivion. An extract of the UN Resolution 181 Partition map was sent to the WMF with another map showing the UN designated are of Jerusalem and its environs within the Corpus Separatum international zone. Lifta sat comfortably inside that zone, and as the WMF response emphasized “the current borders of Israel,” we also sent the WMF another extract of the UN map showing the 1949 Armistice Lines which wrapped around West Jerusalem and the village of Lifta at the cessation of hostilities.
We explained that these lines are exactly what they were meant to be according to international legal definitions: “Armistice Lines represent where the hostilities between the parties ceased until the warring parties reach final agreement.” This is in accordance with international law and the Geneva Convention.
In its response dated 1 November, the WMF wrote:
“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 …” (my emphasis).
However, the WMF is part of the United Nations, listed under the “Official Relations” section of UNESCO. By definition, therefore, it is required to respect international law (“UNESCO - World Monuments Fund).
But as is usually the case at the UN, rights take a back seat to politics. The US State Department’s “Diplomacy In Action” section created the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, which has donated over $2 million to the WMF. In view of the fact that the US has punished UNESCO for admitting Palestine as a member on 31 October 2011, the political link between the State Department funding and the WMF cannot be underestimated.
Despite the WMF’s refusal to include Lifta on its watch list, the village’s fate appears directly relevant to the organization’s work. This can be seen from a comment made by Bonnie Burnham, the WMF’s president, in a 2006 interview with the National Trust for Historic Preservation:
“Time, war, and politics are destroyers of monuments. Which is the biggest threat? In a global context, unquestionably, the biggest is war. In addition to destroying buildings, armed conflict destroys the entire national capacity to deal with heritage” (“The Short Answer: Bonnie Burnham”).
If the WMF was prepared to address that threat, surely it would be acting to save Lifta.
Antoine Raffoul is a chartered Palestinian architect living and practicing in London. He is also a coordinator of 1948 Lest We Forget and can be reached at info AT 1948 DOT org DOT uk.