Guardian

Palestinian tales: Revisiting Harriet Sherwood’s visit to Lifta.


Readers will probably remember the May 2011 article by Harriet Sherwood in which she claimed that the Knesset is built upon the former farmlands of the abandoned village of Lifta which lies at the Western entrance to Jerusalem.  That claim – and others – was quickly disproved at the time by Honest Reporting, who also noted that the BBC’s Wyre Davies had filed a similar report the day before Sherwood’s article was published. 

Both Sherwood’s article and Davies’s report included videos featuring a former resident of Lifta named Yakoub Odeh, whose romantic memories of village life among olive and pomegranate trees were given extensive coverage. But neither Sherwood nor Davies apparently bothered to fact-check either the accommodating Mr Odeh’s connections or the less sentimentally picturesque sides of the village’s history. 

A series of old newspaper cuttings from the now defunct newspaper ‘Davar’ reveals that Lifta had a long history as a base for attacks against neighbouring Jewish villages and traffic on the nearby Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.  

This cutting from September 2nd, 1929 – ten days after the commencement of the riots which included massacres in Hebron, Tsfat , the village of Motza (located near Lifta) and many other places – reports that “This morning a search was conducted in Lifta. 250 [British] soldiers surrounded the village whilst 5 aeroplanes circled above it. 150 people were arrested.”

Throughout the riots of 1936-1939, Lifta was frequently in the news. This report from September 1st 1936 follows previous ones (see here, here and here)  on the subject of the British Mandate forces searching the village for members of the gangs which carried out violent attacks on Jews. 

Search in the village of Lifta

During the night a big search was again carried out in the village of Lifta. At 4 am the village was surrounded by hundreds of [British] soldiers. They searched houses, cow sheds and also in the fields. The search continued until 7 am. The results are not known, but two vans brought detained Arabs from Lifta to the police in Jerusalem for questioning.

Almost every night shots are fired from Lifta in differing directions. Yesterday shots were fired from Lifta at the Diskin Orphanage in Jerusalem. 

This report from September 21st 1936 tells of repeated shooting and bombing attacks on an old-age home near Romema, Jerusalem and the British army’s demolition of a house in Lifta as a result. On May 18th 1937, ‘Davar’ reported that the police had discovered “four big sacks full of explosives” – two in a house in Lifta and two near the village of Malha. 

In 1938, several incidents of shootings from Lifta at vehicles travelling along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road were reported. On January 26th 1938 ‘Davar’ covered the bombing of a lorry transporting oranges in which two Yemenite Jews from Sha’araim were badly injured, (one of whom later died) pointing out that this was one of many attacks which had taken place right by the village of Lifta. 

The shooting of a Yeshiva student near the Diskin Orphanage in Romema in June 1938 resulted in a warning to the village elders from the British authorities. 

A Warning to Lifta

An official announcement from last night says: This morning a Jew was shot near the Diskin Orphanage in Jerusalem. The assailant escaped towards the village of Lifta. The Muktar and village elders were summoned to the Government Offices and there warned that if they do not find the assailant, or if they do not give information leading to his arrest by tomorrow morning, the government will immediately take steps against the village. 

A report from the next day – June 2nd 1938 – shows that the village elders refused to co-operate and so the British authorities established a police station in Lifta – to be paid for by the villagers as a fine. 

With the UN acceptance of the partition plan on November 29th 1947 came renewed violence, with Lifta once more returning to its role as a base for attacks on Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem and the nearby road to Tel Aviv.  

In early December 1947, the residents of Lifta received orders from the Arab Higher Committee to evacuate the village’s women and children to Ramallah and Lifta was made into a base for the Najada militia, from which attacks were launched on Jewish neighbourhoods on Jerusalem’s western side such as Kiryat Moshe, Givat Shaul and Romema. The last of the civilian residents of Lifta left in January or February 1948 for Ramallah as the Haganah took action against the militia stationed in the village. Later, some of Lifta’s residents were housed in the homes of Jews expelled by the Jordanians from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. 

After the 1949 Armistice Agreement, two-thirds of Lifta’s farmlands, as well as the village itself, remained on the Israeli side of the ‘green line’, whilst the remaining third came under Jordanian control and military installations were built upon them – including at Tal al Mudura –  or as it is today known, Givat HaMivtar. 

Although Harriet Sherwood stated in her article that the village owned 1,200 hectares of land in 1948 and had a population of three thousand, the December 1945 ‘Village Statistics’ survey carried out by the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry recorded 2,550 residents and 8,743 dunams of land (874.3 hectares), 756 of which were owned by Jews. In 1934, a land merchant from Lifta had been murdered by nationalist locals for selling land to Jews and the village’s Muktar, Mahmoud Issa, had received threats of murder for the same activity.

And what of the sprightly Mr Yakoub Odeh who inspired Harriet Sherwood’s romantic descriptions of freshly baked bread dipped in locally made olive oil and luscious fruit groves? Well, Odeh’s nostalgia is – to say the least – partially professional. 

He is active in the US-founded Lifta Society  (even appearing on its website’s banner) and collaborates with the anti-Israel NGO ‘Zochrot‘ which accuses Israel of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and advocates the ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees. Zochrot has been campaigning on the subject of Lifta for some time (with financial help from Protestant churches in Holland) and Yakoub Odeh has been the star of a Zochrot-organised press and media tour to the village (as well as many others), as documented by an employee of the Mennonite Central Committee.  

Yakoub Odeh is also connected to the Land Research Center – a Palestinian NGO established in 1986 by Faisal Husseini – ironically a relative of the infamous Haj Amin al Husseini who once headed the same Higher Arab Committee which ordered Odeh’s relatives to leave their village in 1947. 

The Land Research Centre (which, despite its participation in the BDS campaign, has received funding from the UK via DFID) engages in the production of reports, often in collaboration with ARIJ and with EU financial support, which do little to hide their political motivations, going under the banner of “Monitoring Israeli Colonisation Activities in the Palestinian Territories”. In one such recent report, the Land Research Centre reportedly stated that: 

“The Land research center warned that the Israeli occupation government intends to bring more Jews from all over the world to occupied Palestine in order to change its demographic composition and annex more lands for their settlements.

The center said in a report that the Israeli legislation regarding the construction of roads for Jewish settlers so as to protect what they call the state lands reveals that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is aimed to Judaize them and bring Jews to live in place of the Palestinian natives.

The Israeli occupation annexed the Palestinian lands, destroyed agricultural lands, demolished homes, displaced their residents, built settlements for Jewish settlers and then unleashed them to control the tops of mountains, expand their outposts, launch attacks on Palestinian property and then set up an apartheid wall that dismembered Palestine and isolated and besieged its villages, it added.”

When journalists fail to check facts and sources, they inevitably run the risk of misleading the public. In the Middle East, they also run the added risk of voluntarily co-opting themselves to act as amplifiers for political campaigns – thereby undermining their own status as accurate and impartial reporters. 

Let us hope that in the 15 months which have passed since Harriet Sherwood and Wyre Davies visited Lifta, they have come to appreciate that – like the misspelled graffiti in that village, featured and carefully subtitled in the Guardian’s video to point out that it is in Hebrew – things are often best not taken entirely at face value in such a complex part of the world. 

17 replies »

  1. Yakoub Odeh is also connected to the Land Research Center – a Palestinian NGO established in 1986 by Faisal Husseini – ironically a relative of the infamous Haj Amin al Husseini who once headed the same Higher Arab Committee which ordered Odeh’s relatives to leave their village in 1947.

    You should also mention Faisal Husseini was a big believer in the Arabs ethnic cleansing plans for Israelis.

    The Late Faisal Husseini: Oslo Is A Trojan Horse In Husseini’s last interview with the the popular Egyptian newspaper el Arav in 2001.

    Husseini said, it is the obligation of all the Palestinian forces and factions to see the Oslo Accords as “temporary” steps or “gradual” goals, because in this way, “We are setting an ambush for the Israelis and cheating them.”

    He also differentiated between, “strategic,” long term, “higher” goals, and “political,” short term goals dependent on “the current international establishment, balance of power, capabilities, and variable considerations that change from time to time.” Nevertheless, the Palestinians have been forced to temporarily concentrate on “gradual diplomatic goals.” However, the main goal is the “liberation of all Palestine from the river (Jordan) to the sea (Mediterranean),” even if this requires a struggle that will continue “1,000 years, or generations upon generations.”

  2. This is fascinating, insightful, and very, very good.

    It shows how shallow Harriet Sherwood’s reporting is. She has no sense of history, and only ever tells one side of the story (the anti-Zionist side). Inevitably her pieces lack depth and insight.

    Perhaps she should take a course in journalism, but if not, a study of this piece should give her some tips about how to research and report a story.

  3. Another great expose of the ineptitude and the biased agenda of Missy Sherwood, the Guardian and the Al-Beeb….. top work…

  4. Coincidentally when reading one of the sources given by the con Avram

    http://cifwatch.com/2012/08/21/ben-white-ali-abunimah-and-comment-is-free-moderators-egregious-double-standards/comment-page-1/#comment-83896

    I came across this citation on page 388:
    “In a kind of realization that took place half a century later, one-time deputy-mayor of West Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti recalled, “As a member of a pioneering youth movement,
    I myself ‘made the desert bloom’ by uprooting the ancient olive trees of
    al-Bassa to clear the ground for a banana grove, as required by the ‘planned
    farming’ principles of my kibbutz, Rosh Haniqra.”9
    Renaming is central to the cadastral effacement/replacement of the Palestinian Arab presence that Benvenisti poignantly recounts.10”

    http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/89.pdf

    When looking after al-Bassa, I found the assumption that the inhabitants were driven out and ethnically cleansed by Isralian forces.
    http://www.palestineremembered.com/Acre/al-Bassa/
    Strange enough, on a typical anti-Imperialist website in German, I found the tale of a son about his fathers lost village
    http://www.antiimperialista.org/de/node/652

    According to his father, all inhabitants flew voluntarily when hearing of Deir Yassin.

    But the strange thing is that a reference in Wikipedia stated the British burned down the village
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Bassa#1938_massacre

    “In 1938, during the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, the village was the scene of a massacre committed by British soldiers. On September 6, 1938, four soldiers of the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) were killed when their armoured car ran over a land mine near the village. In retaliation, British forces burnt the village down. After that, perhaps a few days later, about 50 Arabs from the village were collected by the RUR and some attached Royal Engineers. Some who tried to run away were shot. Then, according to British testimony, the remainder were put onto a bus which was forced to drive over a land mine laid by the soldiers, destroying the bus and killing many of the occupants. The villages were then forced to dig a pit and throw all the bodies into it. Arab accounts added torture and other brutality. The total death toll was about 20.[28]”
    28 ^ Hughes, M. (2009) The Banality of Brutality: British Armed Forces and the Repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936–39, English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV No. 507, 314–354

    So a burned down village of 1938 turns into an ethnically cleansed 1948, according to Palestinian fiction and to a so-called “researcher on settler colonialism” with a bit of help of Benvenisti.

    Besides the incongruencies and contradictions concerning the figure of inhabitants, land ownerships, religion and so on.

  5. Lifta may indeed have been a hotbed of Arab resistence to the partition plan. If so, I can certainly understand why. My uncle, and thousands of young European Jews like him, did not come to Palestine with a little Arabic dictionary hoping to fit in peacefully with the native inhabitants. They came with the idea of creating a Jewish state in which Liftawis and other Arabs would become a minority in a Jewish country. So it is completely understandable that Liftawis should resist this.

    The Jewish attack on Lifta in December of 1947 was part of a civil war, not a war with outside Arab forces. Once the hostilities were over the Liftawis should have been allowed to return to their village. The fact that they were not permitted to do was an injustice that reverberates to the present day.

    You can see two videos I made about Lifta which include Yacoub Odeh at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=py7i5u9MpYU and at

  6. In 1931 David Ben-Gurion stated, “The Arab community in Palestine is an organic, inseparable part of the landscape. It is embedded in the country. The [Palestinian] Arabs work the land, and will remain.”

    On 28 December 1947 the hollowness of Ben-Gurion’s words echoed out in Lifta when the Stern Gang implemented its strategy: “Destroy Arab neighborhoods and punish Arab villages.” Two weeks after they sprayed a village cafe with machine guns and fired randomly at a local bus, they came back. This time (11 January 1948) they finished the job of forcibly expelling the populace.

    Yacoub Odeh is an exile, who, like Mahmoud Darwish, speaks of profound loss and the longing for home. He was imprisoned by the Israelis for 20 years and suffered brutality, as his scars attest. He had plenty of time to remember the spring in the Wadi al-Shami, known as the “eye of Lifta,” its ancient terraced landscape, the rhythmic sound of the olive press and the aroma of taboon bread from a communal oven.

    Lifta is the home of the Liftawis. The international community supports their rightful claim to return to their land under international law.

  7. The Muslims are claiming Jerusalem,a city that was never theirs,when the Jordanians were in Jerusalem they turned the city into a toilet.These Muslims build Mosques on Synagogues and Churches.Suddenly they discovered Jerusalem the only reason being that the Israeli’s turned it into a world renowned city.

    Yacoub Odeh is an imposter,he is no Exile he can always go back to his original homeland which is in one of the Arab states…..

  8. Maryvelma O’Neill Lifta is the home of the Liftawis……….

    And Mars is the home of the Martians………

  9. M O’Neill……….When the Jews that were brutally kicked out of the Arab States are allowed to return to these Arab states, then and only then come back here and talk to us about these so called Liftawis….In the meantime go to Syria and tell the Syrians that Genocide is a NO NO…….

  10. benorr doth protest too much, methinks. Stick to the topic and don’t go off to Mars or Syria to dodge the real issue, Lifta.

  11. Who said those attacking Jews from Lifta where Lafatwa (Liftawis)? Moreover bring up British Mandate police records from Palestine, and from there you will learn the truth. In fact, you will come to learn that the Lafatwa actually had no beef with and allowed European Jews to live amongst them!

    Lafatwa openned their doors to European Jewish immigrants by renting them homes and properties.

    You will learn from the records that unfortunatly, starting in the 30’s many of these “tenants had an agenda,” unlike the Lafatwa.

    You will note that European Jewish residents of the Upper Lifta (Romema) were turning on the landlords, and were ceasing the homes!

    The truth remains unchanged and unchallenged: that the peoples of this Canaanite Lifta village which “Yacoub Odeh” belongs, are the indigenous.