In 1596, Lifta was a village in the Ottoman Empire, nahiya (subdistrict) of Jerusalem under the liwa’ (district) of Jerusalem, and it had a population 72 Muslim households, an estimated 396 persons. It paid taxes on wheat, barley, olives, fruit orchards and vineyards; a total of 4,800 acres. All the revenue went to a waqf (an Islamic endowment used for charitable purposes).
In 1834, a battle took place here, during the revolt of that year. The Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha and his army fought and defeated local rebels, led by Shaykh Qasim al-Ahmad, a prominent local ruler. However, the Qasim al-Ahmad family remained powerful and ruled the region southwest of Nablus from their fortified villages of Deir Istiya and Bayt Wazan some 25 miles due north of Lifta. In 1838, Edward Robinson noted Lifta as a Muslim village, located in the Beni Malik area, west of Jerusalem. Robinson hired muleteers from Lifta, noting that in Lifta “every peasant keeps his mule and usually accompanies it.”
In 1863, Victor Guérin described Lifta as being surrounded by gardens of lemon-trees, oranges, figs, pomegranates, alms, and apricots. An Ottoman village list from about 1870 indicated 117 houses and a population of 395, though the population count included men, only.
In 1896, the population of Lifta was estimated to be about 966 persons.
In 1907, the German historian Gustav Rothstein was invited to Lifta by his Arabic language teacher, Elias Nasrallah Haddad. Rothstein wrote a 20-pages article describing the marriage celebrations and religious festivals in Lifta.
In 1917, Lifta surrendered to the British forces with white flags and, as a symbolic gesture, the keys to the village.
In the 1922 census of Palestine, Lifta had a population 1,451, all Muslims, increasing in the 1931 census (when Lifta was counted with “Schneller’s Quarter”), to 1,893; 1,844 Muslims, 35 Jews, and 14 Christians, in a total of 410 houses.
During the 1929 Palestine riots, according to one Israeli source, some villagers from Lifta were among gangs that participated in several robberies and attacks on nearby Jewish communities.
In 1945, the popultion of Lifta was 2,250; 2,230 Muslims and 20 Christians, and the total land area was 8,743 dunams, according to an official land and population surveay 3,248 dunams were for cereals, while 324 dunams were built-up (urban) land.
Prior to 1948, the village, with a population of some 2,500 people, had orchards, several olive presses, a winepress, in addition to a modern clinic, two coffeehouses, two carpentry shops, barbershops, a butcher, and a mosque. A small number of Jews resided in the village, and one former Jewish inhabitant described the relationship her family and the Palestinian majority as “excellent.”
The village was essentially a suburb of Jerusalem and the farmers of Lifta marketed their produce in Jerusalem markets and took advantage of the city’s services.
Following the UN’s approval of partition in November 1947, Lifta, Romema, and Shaykh Badr, which were strategically located on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, became targets for Jewish forces. Some families left the village on December 4, 1947, after a decision had been made to evacuate women and children to host a military company.
By mid-December, irregular Arab militia took up positions in Lifta to defend the site. Haganah patrols engaged in firefights with the village militiamen. On December 28, 1947, the village suffered from what survivors called the “Lifta massacre” when a Jewish militia launched a machine-gun and grenade assault on the café of Salah Eisa. To warn residents that they should evacuate, the mukhtar’s home was incinerated, and 20 buildings blown up as the village was put under siege. The attack left seven dead – not a massacre – and more women and children left the village.
The village suffered from food shortages in the beginning of January 1948. Subsequently, a number of the villagers returned home; however, guerrilla commander Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni ordered the women, children, and elderly to evacuate and the men to remain. On January 29, a Lehi raid blew up three houses in the village. By early February, the village was abandoned by the irregular militia.
State of Israel
Following the war, only 60 of Lifta’s 410 homes remained, together with its mosque, an olive press, and a tiled pathway to a spring. Israel settled 300 Jewish families from Yemen and Kurdistan in the village. Living conditions in Lifta were difficult, the buildings were in poor repair, poor roads and transport, and lack of electricity, water, and sanitation infrastructure. In 1969-71, most of the Jewish inhabitants left. Holes were drilled in the roofs of the evacuated buildings to make them less inhabitable, so that squatters wouldn’t take up residence.
In 2021, the Israel Land Administration planned to construct a luxury neighborhood, a hotel, and a mall in Lifta. The ILA promised to preserve the houses, but a group of activists launched a campaign to cancel the project, which was also opposed by the Jerusalem Municipality.
Photo: © Mitchell Bard.