The Khalil Family of Lifta

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Imagine yourself drinking coffee at your favorite neighborhood spot. It’s 1947 in the Palestinian village of Lifta.

Sipping your coffee and looking out over Lifta, you see buildings clustered along foot paths and narrow staircases. The homes are made of golden stone, and they climb the gentle slopes of a valley near Jerusalem.

And then in December 1948 a van pulls up to your coffee shop. Men from Lehi, a Zionist paramilitary group, fire machine guns into the shop then drive off.  Six of your neighbors die that day. In the coming weeks stories pour in from nearby towns.

In Shaykh Badr the home of the village leader is bombed. War is descending around you. You know that the men in the van, or others like them, will be back with their machine guns.

What do you do?

The residents of Lifta fled. Like refugees fleeing war today, they held their children, they helped their elders along, and they brought with them what clothes and possessions they could. They locked their doors behind them, bringing their keys, expecting to return when the war was over.

Until 1948 Lifta was a Palestinian village of 2,500 residents, with a Mosque, a cemetery, two schools, and two coffee shops. The floor of the valley was terraced with stone walls and agricultural fields. 

The fountain in the town center still bubbles today with spring water. If the fountain knows that all the people are gone, it carries on flowing nonetheless.

Umar Al-Ghubari walks us through the village. He is part of the Israeli organization Zochrot, which means remembering. We wander among the bitter almond trees and past the prickly pear cactuses. Next to the wise old olive tree in the town center, I know that life in Lifta must have been beautiful.

My friend Nadya asks Umar “Do you know which is the house of the Khalil family?” He smiles, surprised to hear the name of the family. “You know the Khalil family of Lifta?” He continues, “I don’t remember which is their house. We have to come back here with the old people and they could tell us who lived in each house”

We pass a doorway and I wonder, did the Khalils step over this threshold every morning and greet their neighbors? This crumbling dome, did it cover the room where generations sat down to eat.

Which of these homes had a door, to which the Khalils still have the key?

Which home will they return to when Palestine is free?