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Wadi Lifta, 2011


Yehudit Alayoff, Creative Commons

Journal Article

Remembering Lifta: One Family’s Experience of Repeated Displacements, Imprisonment, and Resilience


The following interview comes from “Voices: Palestinian Women Narrate Displacement,” a project directed by anthropologist and oral historian Rosemary Sayigh. The project seeks to amplify the voices of Palestinian women, highlighting their essential roles in supporting their families and reshaping the history of the Palestinian people. This interview with Sarah Ahmad Odeh from Lifta was conducted in Arabic in 1999 and is available here. It was translated to English by Yara Nahlé.

“I Remember How We Left Lifta”

I am Sarah Ahmad Odeh from Lifta. In 1948 I was maybe 10 years old, and I remember how we left Lifta. Jewish gangs began to attack the villages near Jerusalem, including Lifta. They attacked us once, then a second time, but we didn’t want to leave. Our home was across from Jaffa Road, and all the firing was there. So we left our house for a lower house, a little farther from the Jews, and still the shooting followed us. My mother was frightened for my siblings. She said to my father, “Let’s take them to a village near us, so we shall be a little farther from the Jews.” He said, “No, it’s impossible that I should leave my village. This is my village and my land. How can we leave?” She said, “We won’t take anything with us. Just the children. We’ll take them away for a week until the shooting stops.” All my siblings, all of us were young, and we were screaming. My father used to come and go through all the shooting, and he got wounded in his legs. He crawled on his hands and feet until he reached the house. He picked us up and took us to another house. And still the shooting continued, day and night.

Then they started to use bombs. Our village, the old one, was lower than Jaffa Road, and they took the Jaffa Road toward Deir Yasin. They began to hit us with bombs. And anyone who went out of his house, they aimed at him and shot him. At that time, they hit a Lifta coffeehouse, and many people from Lifta were killed.1 Many died. The main thing is that my siblings were maddened by the noise, so my mother convinced my father that we should leave for a week and return to the house. My father didn’t even allow her to carry bread that we eat. He told her, “We are returning in the morning.”

Blog Post Resurrecting Lifta: A Microcosm of Palestine Pre-1948

A recent book describes the cultural heritage of the depopulated Jerusalem village of Lifta and the struggle of its displaced residents to thwart state plans to erase its remains.

My father didn’t even allow her to carry bread that we eat.

The Palestinian village Lifta, located five kilometers northwest of the Old City

Lifta, a Palestinian village west of Jerusalem that was ethnically cleansed in 1948


Hagai Agmon-Snir, Creative Commons

He picked us up and took us to leave, and while he carried us, they began shooting at him. The bullets came between his legs. And he was weaving from side to side. He had planned to take us to Beit Iksa, but we could not go there. Someone from our village was taking his kids by truck, so we went with him, intending to go to Ramallah.

When we got on our way, intending to get to Ramallah, [a Jewish] military convoy followed us. They wanted to take us in the direction of Kubaniyyat Khamsa above Abu Ghosh, in the direction of Abu Ghosh. They wanted to commandeer the truck that was carrying about 50 people, all of them children. They wanted to take them to Kubaniyyat Khamsa [settlement]. But then a car of British military found us. They both stopped and the two sides argued, but I did not understand what they said. The British military did not allow them [the Jews] to proceed in the direction of Kubaniyyat Khamsa. They let us go in the direction of Bab al-Wad and to Beit ‘Ur al-Tahta and Beit ‘Ur al-Fawqa in the direction of Latrun, and we set out for Ramallah. My father said, “If we had gone in the other direction, they would have slaughtered us all in the truck.” Two people from our village were shot and killed in their truck in front of their own children. They were from the al-Had family.

So our fate was to go to Ramallah. When we got there, we had nothing. Absolutely nothing. Everything was left behind in the house. My father even left the house key behind at the house so we could go back quickly and open the house. So we left for a week and here we are, 50 years later, and we have not gone back.

Photo Scanning the Hills

A critical strategic point during the 1948 War for Jerusalem

We left for a week and here we are, 50 years later, and we have not gone back.

From Ramallah to the Old City in Jerusalem

We went out to Ramallah and stayed there from 1948 to 1949. My father had no work, nothing. Our life was very bitter. We lived in a small house. After that, the British left and the Jordanians came and my father worked with the Jordanian police. We moved to Jerusalem and we lived in the Old City. We lived there from 1949 until November 20, 1952. My father got sick and had to have an operation, and he passed away during it. He was 35. And we, all nine of us—my mother, six boys, and two girls—we lived as orphans. And from that point began the more bitter struggle. We were all small children. My older brother was still only in seventh or eighth grade. He had not completed school. You know at that time, we were all young, and we had nothing—we had just emerged from war and exodus. Everyone had left all their clothes and their things; even their money was left behind in the houses. Everyone’s situation was desperate, barely able to care for themselves.

My big brother quit school and took responsibility for us. He raised my brothers and sisters until they grew up. One brother became a doctor, one a lawyer. Only Yacoub did not finish school.

This is our land. Our father’s sister brought us here and built us a house on this land, which had belonged to my grandparents, so we came here to live. We build it very slowly and lived in it from the beginning of 1953 until June 1969, when they imprisoned Yacoub.

Everyone’s situation was desperate, barely able to care for themselves.

“The Day They Took My Younger Brother Yacoub”

They took him on June 3. When this happened, we were shocked. We would come and go to al-Moskobiyya, my mother and I.2 Every day, we would go in order to find why they took him. We went back and forth to al-Moskobiyya. We would sit at the door of al-Moskobiyya from morning until night until we would come home. One day people came out and told us, “Yacoub is dead.” We asked them, “Did you see him?” They said, “Yes, when they were beating us and torturing us, the mukhabarat told us, ‘Come and see Yacoub who was making such a spectacle of himself as a hero. We killed him.’” In fact, he had passed out and was not conscious from the amount of torture. The word went out that he had died.

There are 80 prisoners in al-Moskobiyya. All of us began screaming, “Allahu akbar.” Another prisoner from the Abu Aker family was killed. They took him out in a car and we all swarmed the car and they started saying, “It’s Yacoub, it’s Yacoub.” If this guy had not died first, Yacoub might have died. But we all besieged al-Moskobiyya and raised hell and made such a racket, until we learned that it was Abu Aker who died. At that point, we were not sure whether Yacoub had actually died.

After 14 or 15 days, we saw him once.

The word went out that he had died.

The Next Forcible Displacement

One day, we were sitting at the door of al-Moskobiyya. My younger siblings [were home]. One was studying for the Tawjihi; one was studying surveying engineering in an institute; one was studying for the grade nine general exam; and my sister was studying for the Tawjihi. All were studying so hard in the home. A small girl who was a relative—her father was the son of my mother’s brother—died. We were going to offer our condolences to them. Before we set out, my brothers called and said some mukhabarat came and measured the dimensions of the house. They did not say what they wanted.

Anyway, we went and gave condolences and sat down. My young brother paid his condolences, and went back home to study. He found the whole neighborhood full of military. We went running and for real, there were 500 or maybe 1,000 Israeli soldiers, bulldozers here and bulldozers here. They had closed off the entire neighborhood from Hyatt Regency to Dar al-Hukuma and beyond. They [had encircled the place and] did not let anyone out or in. When I went running from my relative’s house back to ours, I saw a secret police officer whom I knew from our time at the door of al-Moskobiyya when I would drop off food for my brother. His name is David Hin. I told him, “What do you all want, David Hin? Why are you here?” He said, “Follow me, follow me, you will see what’s happening.” The place was all crawling with military. My siblings were all studying in the house; it was 9:00 p.m. at night.

Some mukhabarat came and measured the dimensions of the house.

I said, “Wait there. The children are studying! I need to tell them. Did you want to enter the house?”

He said, “Yes, I want to enter. There is a court decision here, you need to hear it.”

I said, “Wait here, the children are studying inside in their pajamas!”

He said, “So what?” He pushed me out of the way, opened the door, and entered the house himself.

All the children were sitting inside studying. They all stood up as he entered. They looked at him. He said, “There is an order to demolish this house.” My brother Samir was here and still studying Tawjihi. He grabbed the decision from his hand and put it under his foot and stepped on it. He said, “What kind of decision is that—removing people from their home! What did we do to deserve this? You took my brother and he is not accused of anything but he is in prison. What is our fault that you kick us out of our house? We are not going to comply.” And he put the order under his foot.

Home Demolition, Israeli Style

Some 50 soldiers swarmed all over him, hitting him. I was screaming, and my mother was screaming, and my siblings were screaming. The entire neighborhood rushed out asking what’s happening, but they didn’t let anyone get close. They wanted to drag Samir into the army car. We held on to him. My brother was the only one they were beating, and he knew Hebrew. One of their men turned to the secret police and military commander and said, “If someone came to kick you out of your house, what would your reaction be? Besides, the prison is full, where are we supposed to put him? Just beat him and let him go.” My brother said, “You cannot beat me.” About 50 or 60 soldiers attacked him from every side and started beating him as he fought back. We screamed and then pulled him from their hands. I took him to my uncle’s house and closed the door. He was kicking and screaming, wanting to charge at them. He lost his mind after seeing how they attacked him for no reason.

They gave us and another family (our relatives) whose son was arrested with my brother an order to vacate the house in half an hour. People from the community rushed to help. They started taking out our belongings and placing them on the street, and the tank rolled over them. They brought military tanks, the ones used on the front to carry big cannons. They crushed everything: our food, the rice, the sugar . . . They smashed the glass. They left nothing. When we asked what they were doing, they claimed they couldn’t see well and that we shouldn’t put stuff on the street. Were we displaying things to be photographed? We weren’t able to remove a quarter of what the house had. Our neighbors took some of the stuff to their house for safekeeping. The operation to destroy our home using military tanks was never repeated. We took out whatever we could carry, and then they destroyed our house and our neighbors’, from 9 p.m. until 11 a.m. They flattened our house first and then brought in a bulldozer to smooth out the land to make it level with the street. They took soil from the neighbors and buried the rubble under street level so when journalists came asking about the demolished house, they would say, “What house? There’s no demolished house here.”

They gave us . . . an order to vacate the house in half an hour.

Then they moved on to our neighbors’ house. It was larger so it took more time. The soldiers messed up the neighborhood before they left. They didn’t leave any wood as they used it to heat their food.

As they were demolishing the house, my mother started screaming. My sister told her, “Don’t get upset, Mom. It’s for the sake of the fedayeen.” And she started ululating.3 A soldier hit her with the end of his rifle. She took out her slippers and hit him with them. “Why are you beating me?” she asked. “We sacrifice everything for the fedayeen. We don’t care about all of this. What matters is that our children are men; they defend their homeland and our lands and rights.” There were trees all around us, and they were bearing fruit. The soldiers bulldozed and uprooted them, showing us the torn-out branches and laughing. We left them at around 9 and went to al-Moskobiyya to see what happened with Yacoub.

When the secret police came to al-Moskobiyya and saw my mother, one of them started cursing her and shouting, “We are up there demolishing your house, and you’re down here?” He cursed her parents, God, and religion. “Why are you cursing?” she asked, “I’m here for my son. The house is destroyed but we can get it back [i.e., rebuild]. We can’t get back our child. I’m here to see my child.” He said that they wrecked the place, and it would be hard to rebuild, to which she answered, “It doesn’t matter, things can be fixed. Nothing is difficult as long as there is life. What matters is that I ask about my son and see him. My son is precious to me, and his land and country are more precious to him than his soul. I am honored that my son was arrested. The house is not important.” He said that she will never see her son again, not today nor tomorrow nor a month from now. “I don’t care. I just want him to be alive,” she insisted.

Living in a Tent atop the Home’s Ruins

The secret police came back a week later to inspect a bathroom that was a separate structure from the house. They hadn’t demolished it earlier with the rest of the house. A team of intelligence and army officers came over and found us camped on top of our house’s ruins. We had pitched a tent and sat inside it. They asked why we were living there, and we said, “Where can we go?” They warned us that if we stayed there, they would remove us by force and “throw” us in Amman. My mother said defiantly, “Neither you nor your superiors can dump us in Amman. This is our land. You demolished the house and took my boy, what else do you want? This is my land and my house and I’m staying here.” She started cursing the secret police officer. He told her that he wasn’t the one to blame, he had been sent to check on the bathroom, and there was nothing he could do about it. She told him to demolish it, but they didn’t. We kept using it for about nine months; from March 17, 1969, until 1970.

Our neighbors invited us to stay with them, but we refused. Summer came and we started sleeping in the tent. They even prohibited the Red Cross from providing a tent. The mayor of Ramallah wanted to give us one, but they threatened to punish him if he did. We ended up with a makeshift tent made of blankets.

Then Yacoub’s trial began. He attended 23 court hearings. They prohibited my mother and siblings from attending and sometimes even from seeing him. They didn’t allow us to bring anything to the prisoners. They made us suffer. He stayed in prison for 20 years while my mother, who suffered from chronic asthma, was running around trying to provide for us and rebuild our house. People from the community started donating construction material.

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The Grapevine of Resilience

My mother would go to al-Moskobiyya and stay there until noon hoping that they would let her see him [i.e., Yacoub], then she would come back home and start sorting the construction materials. With her bare hands she would separate the soil, the small stones, and the bigger ones. My siblings and I helped too. We tidied the whole area, and the secret police would come and threaten us, warning us not to build anything on the land. We said we didn’t want to do anything other than clean the soil and restore the land. They destroyed our grapevine, rolled over it with a bulldozer, and covered it with soil from our neighbors’ property. When it rained later that year, the grapevine grew back. We called it “the grapevine of resilience.”

There were Israeli students from the Hebrew University living in caravans in the area. They had seen the army destroy our house, and when they asked why, they were told that we were mukharribin. So, when they saw us rebuilding the house, they called the army on us.

My mother went to the deputy mayor of Jerusalem and told him, “You tore down my house, you imprisoned my son although he’s innocent, why are you punishing the rest of my kids? We are living under the rain. I want to build my house and shelter in it with my family.” He told her she could build but gave her no official permit. She went back to ask for a permit, but he refused, claiming that she didn’t need one. She argued with him and held him responsible if anything should happen to her children who are sleeping in the rain. She said she didn’t have money to rent another house, and he replied that he didn’t have money for her to build a house. “I don’t want your money,” she said. “I want a permit to build a house on my land, so I don’t get penalized once I do.” He ended up giving her a written document.

We spent 20 years building our house. We began in 1970. We put up exterior doors and people donated window frames; the windows were without glass and we covered them up with newspapers. Many foreigners and journalists came to take pictures. Little by little, we completed the house.

We owned about 100 dunums in Lifta, where the zoo now stands.

My brother, who took a severe beating from them, was traumatized. He would become violent whenever he saw a Jew, so they wanted to detain him. An international organization offered to send him abroad to study. He didn’t want to go but we forced him, and eventually, he went to the United States. He left two months after he was tried. He left in 1970 and was abroad for more than 25 years. When he came back for the first time, everything had changed. He saw that settlements had spread all around us and we had no lands left. He died the next morning. He couldn’t stand it. He came at four in the afternoon and died at six the following morning. He didn’t have any prior health issues. He just couldn’t bear the loss of our lands. He had a stroke.

My mother was widowed at a young age. She was 30, and my deceased father was 35. She raised and educated us on her own, instilling in us the values of goodness and patriotism. Until her death, she repeatedly reminded us to stay together and united, to never forsake our home and land, and to never abandon our country. “Palestine is our country,” she would declare, recounting stories about the old times, and reminiscing about a Palestine and a Lifta that belonged to them, back when they could still farm their land and tend to it, feeling deeply connected it. We hold onto that love for our land just as fervently as she did.

My father, too, was a patriot and remarkable man. We were a modest family, deeply attached to our land and country. Unfortunately, we lost everything. Everything was taken from us. We owned about 100 dunums in Lifta, where the zoo now stands. This land was my father’s, jointly owned with his brother, and they had plans to develop it in 1948. However, that same year, it was seized, and the area was renamed Ramat Eshkol. As for our home, it was demolished, and its remnants still lie where it once stood. My father owns about 50 dunums in Lifta, below Jaffa Street.

Sarah’s Story

When we were displaced, my father sought to enroll us in a school, but the options provided by UNRWA were coeducational and didn’t suit us socially. He decided to enroll the boys and postpone the girls’ enrollment until the following year. However, we couldn’t register the next year, because we had missed a year. I was devastated when they told us. The teacher informed me that I was supposed to be in the second grade. I told her to take it up with UNRWA. “It was the occupation’s fault, not mine,” I said. I lost my chance to go to school. All my siblings got an education. They either have high school or university diplomas. My younger brother holds a PhD in politics and economics.

Sarah Odeh displays her Palestinian embroidered dress in 1999

Sarah Odeh in her house, showing her embroidered thobe, 1999


Leena Saraste, Oral History Project

In 1963 or so, a literacy program was launched, and I enrolled for a few years. I received a certificate equivalent to grade 6. I delivered a speech during the graduation of the first batch of women who attended the literacy program. After learning to read and write, I began volunteering with local initiatives to assist those in need. Following the 1967 War, I volunteered to aid prisoners who were detained with my brother. We monitored their cases, organized protests, and ran advocacy campaigns to shed light on their plight. I also supported their parents and accompanied them on visits. If the prisoners had no family, I would visit them myself. We used our own savings to buy them necessities or provided them with checks they could use inside. We followed the situation of the prisoners very closely. This experience became another form of schooling for me.

At home, I shouldered the responsibility of caring for my siblings. My father passed away at a young age, and my mother was ill, so I raised my siblings. My youngest brother wasn’t even born when my father died. I nurtured him and saw him through until he earned his doctorate degree. My mother was our guiding light, showing us the way and providing us with direction. After that, I looked after my ailing mother. She’s been dead for seven months now.

I learned sewing and tatreez and I started teaching village girls. On the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, I arrived at the workshop and said to the girls, “It’s an ominous day!” They didn’t know what I meant. Their teachers hadn’t provided them with enough information about it, because the authorities didn’t allow discussions about Palestine, even during the Transjordanian rule. I gathered the young girls and explained to them the significance of this day—that the English promised the Jews a state in Palestine at the expense of Palestinians. They pledged our land and country to others. We observed a moment of silence to mourn that day.

I am now banned from entering Jordan. When I attempted to go, the Jordanian police turned me away at the border. When I asked why, they said, “You know why; we don’t allow people who are involved in politics.” I insisted that I’m just a homemaker, but they still sent me back, with an officer even accompanying me on the bus. That was in the 1980s.

Two months after my mother’s passing, I tried to enter Jordan again for my  [hajj] pilgrimage to Mecca. They were shocked to see me at the border. They said, “You came in the 1980s, and we turned you away. You must leave!” I wanted to know why and requested to be transferred to a court or the intelligence bureau. A court will either clear my name or send me to prison. I have nothing to hide. But they wouldn’t listen. Once again, they sent me back on a bus with tourists, instructing the driver not to open the window until we reached Israel. They also confiscated my bag. When I arrived at the passport control in Israel, I was very distraught to realize I had left my passport with the Israeli officer at the border and hadn’t gotten it back and I forgot to ask for it. I lost my passport and my bag, and I couldn’t go to hajj.

The Jordanians didn’t allow me in because of my brother’s imprisonment. Our whole family is barred from visiting Jordan.

We go from one occupation to another.



This attack occurred on December 28, 1947. Six people were killed and seven wounded. Walid Khalidi, ed., All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2015), 301.


Al-Moskobiyya is a detention center within the Russian Compound near the Old City. During the British Mandate era, it was the central prison. After 1948, it was used for the interrogation and detention of Palestinian prisoners. Among Palestinians, the very name has become synonymous with torture.


The ululation, or zaghrouta, is generally performed during weddings and other celebrations. Here it is an indication of defiance.

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