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EXCLUSIVE: The archaeological report Israel wants to bury

An aerial view of the scenic ghost village of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem
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A survey obtained by i24NEWS warns Lifta, a unique heritage site, could be destroyed

Lifta is a village frozen in time.

Located on a steep hill at the western entrance to Jerusalem, the now abandoned site is mentioned in the Old Testament as being on the outer edges of the territory of the Tribe of Judah. In the Hebrew Bible, it is referred to as Mei Neftoach.

Human beings have lived there for thousands of years, thanks in part to natural spring water flowing through the area.

Over the centuries, the village was inhabited by the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and then Palestinian Arabs, who lived in Lifta until the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, when all the inhabitants fled or were forced to leave. Afterwards, the State of Israel used the buildings to house Yemenite and Kurdish immigrants.

A few years ago, the UN conservation body UNESCO added the picturesque ghost village to a tentative list for World Heritage sites, and last October the World Monuments Fund placed it on watch list of the world’s 25 most endangered sites.

However, Lifta’s picturesque crumbling buildings and rich heritage may soon vanish forever due to controversial plans to build opulent villas there.


With a government body eager to develop the area into a luxury piece of real estate, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) was tasked with conducting an in-depth archaeological survey. For three years, archaeologists studied the buildings, roads and foundations of Lifta.

Last April, the IAA published a video describing the discoveries they had made in their preliminary study of the dozens of buildings that make up the site.

“There’s no doubt this is a very important survey the IAA has conducted,” Avi Mashiah, a senior planner at the IAA, said at the time.

“I’m very proud to be a part of it and I truly hope the results of the survey will lead to this village being preserved for future generations.”

In October, the archaeologists were going to publish their findings for the first time. But somebody stopped them and the survey, which was available online for a brief period, suddenly and mysteriously vanished.

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What the survey reveals

However, i24NEWS has obtained part of the hastily withdrawn survey.

It reveals a discovery that completely changes the existing understanding of Lifta’s history: a building dating back to Antiquity.

Before the survey, the structure was believed to have been built during the Crusader period, but archaeologists found remnants that are in fact thousands of years old, dating all the way back to the Hellenistic or Roman eras in Israel.

Within the hundreds of pages that make up the in-depth study, the archaeologists’ recommendations also stand out.

They include maintaining the historic areas of Lifta, reconstructing the damaged buildings and keeping the spring open to the public.

Perhaps most importantly, the archaeologists recommended avoiding massive development in many areas.

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The Israel Land Authority (ILA) is the official body for managing lands across the state of Israel and it is also behind the luxury development project in Lifta.

Ilan Shtayer, the coordinator of a coalition of Jews and Arabs who have come together to try to save Lifta, told i24NEWS that the Land Authority is required to make the findings of the survey publicly available “so that professionals and experts can look at it and decide what needs to be done here.

"Those of us who are interested in the history of Lifta requested the archaeological survey,” he said. “We go it via a court order. The Israel Land Authority is publicly-funded by Israeli citizens and the survey results are for us.”

Shtayer added that the remains seen at Lifta “are unlike anything else we’ve found in the Middle East.”

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ILA to move forward with development, despite opposition

Nevertheless, the Israel Antiquities Authority and all the archaeologists involved in the survey declined to comment for this article.

They said only the ILA is allowed to discuss the ancient village, the archaeological findings there, and any plans for future development.

The ILA itself told i24NEWS that the site needs to be developed in order to preserve the village’s buildings, which are in serious disrepair.

“Lifta cannot be left as is, since it is an ancient village with buildings in an advanced state of dilapidation which therefore pose a real danger to the public,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“The new neighborhood will have 268 residential units, including a lot for hotels and mixed residential/commercial lots… The development plan takes into account that Lifta is a village meant for conservation,” the statement said, adding that: “the Israel Land Authority intends to soon offer the land in a public tender, while adhering to conservation efforts set forth by the plan.”

No explanation was given as to why the archaeological survey is still publicly unavailable.

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Why were the survey results hushed up?

Giora Solar is an architect and the head of the Israeli committee for the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). He helped submit Lifta to Israel’s tentative list for World Heritage Sites at UNESCO.

“There are many interests, but the primary one is the Land Authority,” Solar told i24NEWS. “They want to develop the area and sell houses and sell land.”

Solar believes the archaeologists’ recommendations in the survey may be too stringent for existing building plans. He also hinted at the possibility that the IAA instructed their archaeologists not to discuss the matter so that further lucrative excavations could be carried out.

“The Israel Antiquities Authority was paid a lot of money to conduct an archaeological survey of the site,” Solar noted, smiling wryly.

“That means that they have a client. Normally I would not talk against the interests of myclient, but the Antiquities Authority also has an additional interest,” he added. “Once the plan is approved, every infrastructure project will require archaeological excavations. They will make more money.”

Ultimately, those trying to save Lifta believe the ILA will have to revise its current construction plans.

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“The core of the village has to be conserved as is. But it’s possible that they can have residential construction on the outskirts of Lifta,” Shtayer conceded.

Others argue that in order to preserve the ancient site for future generations, someone with a lot of personal wealth will have to get involved.

“An ideal scenario [would be] that a philanthropic group buys [Lifta] and restores it for the benefit of the public,” Solar argued.

Whatever happens, it seems that Lifta's true value is now finally being recognized in more ways than one, and that the battle for its future is likely just beginning.

Maya Margit is i24NEWS’ culture correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @mayamargit for the latest updates on the art scene in Israel.

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There is no such people as Palestinian Arabs. At the time that Rome called the land Palestine, there were no Arabs in the land.

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