Disputed settlements: history haunting Mid-East talks

A major effort is being made to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Negotiations ground to a halt last year when Israel failed to renew a partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

On Monday Israel passed a law allowing West Bank settlers and settlement-based businesses to sue Israeli citizens who boycott settlement activity.

Backers of the law insist that it is needed to protect Israelis living in the West Bank, the Associated Press reported.

The Palestinians, who consider that territory their own, want recognition of their state within the 1967 borders.

The Middle East diplomatic Quartet, comprised of the UN, Russia, the European Union and the US, is meeting in Washington on Monday to discuss this and many other points of dispute standing in the way of reconciliation.

Meanwhile, RT visited an old Arab village, Lifta, which its former inhabitants say stands as a painful memory of injustice.

Yacoub Odeh, a refugee, grew up among the cacti and fig trees of Lifta.

“I feel happy to come back, to breath, to see my village, to see the houses. Also to remind my father and mother,” he told RT.

In 1948, just before the state of Israel was declared, his family was evacuated. Unlike the hundreds of Arab villages that disappeared in 1948 and 1967, most of the original houses of Lifta are still there.

“Suddenly we heard shooting. We shouted ‘Mama, mama they will shoot you’. Our mother took us inside the room in the corner so as to protect us,” Yacoub recalls.

Yacoub was one of 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees in 1948. His childhood home was quickly taken over by the newly established Jewish state.

“Almost every Palestinian who left his house in 1948, if he was forced to go or he left it just because he was threatened, he is considered as absentee and he lost the property,” explains Sami Ershied, a lawyer defending the rights of the Palestinian refugees.

In the early 1950s, Jews moved into the abandoned houses. Like Yoni Yochanan’s parents, they were also refugees. They were fleeing Arab countries, where life had become dangerous after the State of Israel was declared.

The Israeli government sent them to live in Lifa. Yoni, who was born in Lifta, says it was to prevent the Arab owners from returning.

“When they came here in 1948 they lived here for years without water, without electricity. When they came here it was Jerusalem for them. The Jewish memory here is very important,” he said.

Most of the original 200 Jewish families left because living in the mountains was difficult and the government was slow to develop the area.

No-one has lived in Lifta for 46 years. All that remains are broken stone walls where wild flowers and grass now grow. The village is empty.

And it is into that emptiness that the Israeli government now plans to build more than 200 luxury homes, a chic hotel, shops and a museum. The municipality argues they will preserve the history of the place.

“We will find ourselves in a neighborhood where history is being conserved, there will also be documentation and the story will be told of who lived there, as we do in all the neighborhoods in Jerusalem,” assures Naomi Tsur, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem.

But many, like Yacoub, say it is Palestinian land and a double injustice.

“Why do you want to destroy our houses and build villas for the rich people who came from anywhere? Why can’t I move and come back, return back to my village? This makes me so sad, so angry,” Yacoub says.

For Palestinians Lifta is a physical memory of injustice and survival. While for a fair number of Israelis it is an eyesore – they would rather not be reminded of what happened there every time they drive into Jerusalem.

A representative of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, Khaleel Abu Khadijeh, told RT that recognition of the Palestinian state will mean that refugees will not be able to come back to their homes.

“So if we get a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, that means the refugees who came from Israel’s territories will only be eligible to go back to Palestine, which means the West Bank and Gaza,” said Khadijeh.

“What the international community can do is to protect the Palestinian civilians who are suffering; we are only asking that international law be obeyed.”