In 2001, renowned Palestinian intellectual Ibrahim Abu Lughoud passed away in his home in Ramallah. He was not buried there however, nor was he flown back to the United States where he spent the majority of his life. Instead, Dr. Abu Lughoud, in perhaps the first actual “return” of a Palestinian refugee, was buried in the old cemetery of Jaffa, the place of his birth, alongside his father.
In death, Dr. Abu Lughoud was able to achieve what millions of Palestinian refugees strive to accomplish in life. For many, it is too late. After 63 years in exile, most of Palestine’s original refugees have passed away, passing down the memories of their former life and land to their children and grandchildren. In the case of Dr. Abu Lughoud, Jaffa lived within him no matter where he went and what he did. It was on his insistence that he be buried in Jaffa, a not-so-simple feat since Israel did not want even a dead Palestinian allowed that right to return.
Among the many things Dr. Abu Lughoud embraced both in life and in death, has been the collective will of the Palestinians to remember their homes, to demand that justice be done and to resist any and all attempts at erasure.
Today, this will and determination is represented in the ruined village of Lifta, northwest of Jerusalem. It is the embodiment of all that is Palestinian, all of our history, our past, our nostalgia for what was lost and our determination that it not be thrust into oblivion.
The village of Lifta is the only pre-1948 evacuated village that was not transformed into a highway, a city or a settlement by new Israeli colonists. Today its ruins stand as testimony to a life that once was for its inhabitants –” low stone houses, a mosque, olive presses and communal ovens. The land of Lifta, once massive, has been mostly confiscated –” the Knesset, Hadassah Hospital and a Hebrew University campus are all built on some of Lifta’s agricultural land. However, the center of the village, where the ancient stone edifices stand have so far been left untouched (save for the original holes blown into the roofs by Jewish gangs to make the houses henceforth uninhabitable). They have been abandoned mostly, with only a few houses on the fringe taken over by Jewish families, the old spring used as a picnic ground and barbeque area for young Israeli teens.
The inhabitants of Lifta either settled in east Jerusalem –” only a few kilometers from their original homes or were exiled to other areas of Palestine and across the border. But many can see their abandoned and ruined homes from their own windows, drive by them on their way to Jerusalem’s center or, if in exile, on the many web sites set up in the village’s name. For years, although Lifta remained depopulated and in Israeli hands, at least the Palestinians could see the actual remains and be reminded of what their Palestine looked like over half a century ago.
Today Israel is trying to obliterate even that memory. An Israeli plan is awaiting legal approval to tear down the ruins of Lifta and build luxury houses, a hotel, boutiques and a museum in its place. The physical remains of Lifta, just like the hundreds of Palestinian villages before it, will be wiped off the face of the earth.
There is much opposition to the plan, not least of all by the Palestinians whose memory is etched in the old homes and soil of Lifta. But this is just another chapter in an old/new story. Israel has tried for 63 years to erase the memory of Palestinians, to eradicate their historical narrative and to ensure that nothing remains of the Palestine before Israel.
However, we are not finished. The march to the borders of pre-1948 Palestine on Nakba Day, the symbolic keys hung in the homes of so many refugees, keys to the houses they were forced to leave behind, and the tombstone over a mound of soil marking the grave of one lone Palestinian refugee overlooking the sea of Jaffa all point to a single truth: Palestinians will never forget their history, their homes or their right to return. Nor should they.