UPDATED: LA Times Gets Its Facts Wrong on Lifta

This analysis replaces an earlier, less detailed article first posted on April 7.
On April 7, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy front-page feature story about Israeli plans to redevelop the abandoned Arab village of Lifta next to Jerusalem (“Israel and Palestinians have conflicting visions for village’s future”).
The article, by Jerusalem bureau chief Edmund Sanders, contained multiple factual errors and relayed a selective account of Lifta’s 1948 history. The two Israeli figures cited in the article, though hailing from the far political fringe, are presented as authorities, even though “historian” Ilan Pappe has openly dismissed historical accuracy in favor of ideology, and Daphna Golan supports the “right of return” and labels Israel an “apartheid state.”
Los Angeles Times editors failed to respond to CAMERA’s communications concerning factual errors, but did follow up with an online Opinion piece by Ghada Karmi praising the Lifta article and further charging Israel with “demolishing every vestige of Palestinian life and history in the land.”
Edmund Sanders’ 1,365-word article about development plans for Lifta, an abandoned Arab village outside Jerusalem in which many empty homes and other buildings still remain standing, touches on, in his words, “one of the most intractable issues in Mideast peace talks: whether Palestinians should have the right to return to ancestral homes inside Israel and what this would mean for Israel’s survival as a Jewish state.” Unfortunately, the article’s many errors and one-sided historical account shed little light on that key issue. Moreover, editors at the paper have failed to respond to CAMERA’s documentation concerning the factual errors which we first wrote about here.


Government Buildings on Lifta Land?

First, Sanders incorrectly writes that Lifta’s “farmland was confiscated and is now the site of Israel’s Supreme Court; its parliament, the Knesset; and Hebrew University.” According to the Jerusalem municipality, none of those institutions are built on land formerly belonging to Lifta. Elie Isaacson, the spokesman for the municipality, noted that the Knesset’s land is leased from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. As for the Hebrew University and the Supreme Court, they sit on land that once was part of the Arab village of Sheikh Badr, not Lifta.

Likewise, a phone call to Israel Kimhi of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, and a foremost expert on the city of Jerusalem, confirmed that Lifta’s boundaries did not extend that far south. He consulted a British Mandate era map and found that Lifta’s boundaries only went as far south as Jaffa Street, and did not reach the government compound area to which Mr. Sanders refers.

What Does the “Nakba Law” Say?

In a separate factual error, Sanders writes: “The Knesset last month passed a law that would impose fines on groups or authorities that commemorate the Palestinian displacement.” This is a gross misrepresentation of the so-called “Nakba Law,” which can be viewed on the Knesset Web site here.  The first and second paragraphs of the law in English (CAMERA’s translation) read:

A body which is budgeted (ie, a state-sponsored body) or supported according to clause 21, or a public institution supported according to clause 3a shall not incur expenses in order to engage in activities which involve —

a) 1) the rejection of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish nation; 2) the rejection of the democratic character of the state; 3) support for armed struggle or acts of terror, of an enemy or terror organization, against Israel; 4) incitement to racism, violence, or terror; 5) dishonoring of the national flag or national symbol; In this sub-section, “expense” — includes waiving income. (b) If the Finance Minister sees that a state budgeted or supported body does not abide by this clause, he is entitled to withhold funds from the state budget that are supposed to be transferred to the said body . . .

Thus, the errors in Sanders’ description of the law are manifold. First, the law does not apply to “groups or authorities” at large, but specifically to state-funded bodies, such as municipalities, public schools, and the like.
NGOs and private outfits do not fall into this category, and there is nothing in the law to prevent them either from commemorating “Palestinian displacement” or rejecting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. As the fourth paragraph of the law states, “Accordingly, the law will forbid all governmental entities, or bodies which receive government funds, to organize or fund activities which undermine the foundations of the country or to contradict is basic values.”

Second, the bill does not outlaw “commemora[tion] of the Palestinian displacement.” Rather, it outlaws the rejection of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish nation. One most certainly can recognize or memorialize Palestinian displacement, and at the same time recognize that Israel is the state of the Jewish nation.

Third, contrary to Sanders’ report, the law does not allow for any “fine.” Rather, it grants the Finance Minister the discretion to withhold funds that were otherwise budgeted to the entity.

Sanders Misleads: Will the Old Homes Be Destroyed?

The entire article misleads concerning the fate of the old Arab homes under the new luxury apartment development plan. Sanders repeatedly implies that the new construction involves the ruin of the pre-state Arab buildings. For instance, he quotes Israeli Daphna Golan: “As time passes and that [older] generation disappears, maybe it will be easier [for Israelis to accept the Palestinian narrative.] The question is whether anything will be left.” He also quotes Zacharia Odeh, whose parents had lived in Lifta, as saying, “But even if we are not allowed to return, it should be preserved.” The article continues that Odeh claims that the housing project “would erase much of the last surviving evidence that Palestinians once occupied much of what is now Israel.”

The follow-up Op-Ed by Ghada Karmi reinforces the falsehood that the new building project involves the destruction of the Arab buildings. She writes:

On setting up its state in 1948, Israel set about demolishing every vestige of Palestinian life and history in the land. . . . Palestinians have never accepted our enforced oblivion. . . For these reasons, the battle to preserve Lifta must be won – its remains a physical memory of injustice and survival.

The only hint to the contrary that Sanders provides, and which he ultimately dismisses, is: “A spokesman for the mayor of Jerusalem said in a statement that the proposal calls for preserving Lifta’s structures, a contention activists dispute.”

There was no reason for Sanders to resort to he said/she said counter-charges (in which he ultimately sides with the Palestinian claims). As reported by Nir Hasson in Ha’aretz on Jan. 21, 2011 (indeed, Sanders’ selective reliance on Ha’aretz‘s Lifta reporting is noteworthy, and will be further explored below): “The developers have committed to preserve the houses and meticulously restore them. Plans call for the houses to become restaurants and galleries.” Hasson then goes on to quote architect Gabriel Kertesz, who designed the new development in Lifta:

There is one approach that nothing should be done, which means the disappearance of the village. Our approach is one involving preservation and revival. The plan requires the most meticulous preservation rules and permits construction only after the historic buildings are preserved and everything is done under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority and a conservation architect. (Emphasis added)
Sanders might have done some journalistic research here. Instead of dismissing the municipality’s statement as a dubious claim, he could have met with architect Kertesz and checked the building plans. Or, he might have checked with officials from the Antiquities Authority or he could have tracked down the conservation architect. True, it would have robbed him of his tidy tale starring Israelis who want to erase any Arab vestiges, but it would have provided for a more accurate article.


The only Israeli sources that Sanders quotes in his article are two highly partisan figures who both exploit their academic titles in order to advance their extremist political agendas. Given that Lifta, as Sanders wrote, is an embodiment of the intractable “right of return” issue, is it appropriate that the only two Israelis he quotes support the “right of return,” an anathema position among the vast majority of Israelis? Worse, Sanders does not identify these two marginal figures – Ilan Pappe and Daphna Golan – as just that, marginal. He thereby bestows upon them undeserved credibility and falsely presents them as reasonable, mainstream authorities.

Pappe, who Sanders identifies only as an “Israeli historian,” has repeatedly and openly eschewed historical facts in favor of ideology, stating, for example, “Indeed the struggle is about ideology, not about facts, Who knows what facts are? We try to convince as many people as we can that our interpretation of the facts is the correct one, and we do it because of ideological reasons, not because we are truthseekers” (Le Soir, Nov. 29, 1999).

Additional instances in which he expressed this sentiment can be seen here. In line with his embrace of ideology over facts, Pappe has repeatedly backed bogus charges against Israel, including the myth of a 1948 massacre of the villagers of Tantura and the bogus assertion that Israel committed a massacre in Jenin  in 2002. He has also backed international boycott campaigns of Israeli academia, rendering Sanders’ description of him — “Israeli historian Ilan Pappe” — inadequate and misleading.

The other Israeli that Sanders quotes in his article is Daphna Golan, whom he identifies as a “Hebrew University professor and sociologist Daphna Golan.” Yet, given that this article goes to the core issue of the “right of return,” it is peculiar that Sanders forgot to mention that Golan is one of the very few Israelis who advocates the so-called “right of return,” which virtually all Israelis understand to mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. (See Golan’s endorsement of the 2004 “Olga Document,” which states: “Recognition of the right of return follows from our principals.”)

The Olga Document also accuses Israel of being an apartheid state , a sentiment which Golan -– a founder of the organization B’Tselem — has frequently repeated. See here, here and here, for example.

In a Feb. 27, 2011 Ha’aretz column , Golan falsely claimed that the Knesset, Supreme Court, and Hebrew University (Givat Ram campus) are built on Lifta land, so she very well may have been Sanders’ source on this point as well.

Sanders writes that the Israel “Lands Administration, the Israeli Interior Ministry and Jerusalem municipality all declined to comment.” But he cannot blame his use of marginal Israeli figures on official reticence to address the building project. As previously mentioned, the Israeli architect who spoke to Ha’aretz was certainly available for comment. And if Sanders was interested in a historical perspective, he might have turned to historian Benny Morris. Morris has contributed several Op-Eds to the Los Angeles Times and has dealt at length with Lifta in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. He provided many more details, plus clear and full footnotes, than Pappe does in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Pappe, for his part, provides just one footnote, and it is so lacking in essentials such as a date and volume number that it is useless.

Sanders’ Selective Historical Account

With Pappe and Golan as his sources, it’s no surprise that Sanders provides a very one-sided, distorted account of Lifta during the 1948 war era. Sanders correctly notes that “[a]fter being forgotten for decades, Lifta is now the focus of conflicting visions of its future, and of its past.” Yet, he himself only presents the Palestinian version of events, which he bolsters with Pappe’s claims, despite Pappe’s distaste for the facts.

About the war, Sanders writes that

in late 1947, Lifta became a battleground between Israel’s pre-state militias and Arab fighters. The Jewish militias Haganah and the Stern Gang killed several villagers in two attacks, one against a bus, the other against Lifta’s popular coffeehouse, according to accounts by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. By early 1948, the entire population of the village was gone . . .

After Israel seized East Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East War, the Odehs were able to visit their old home, which had temporarily housed Jewish immigrants from Yemen and Iraq.

Regarding the emptying of Lifta, Sanders fails to mention that the villagers were directed to come and go by their leadership. Morris writes: “Lifta was apparently told by Arab authorities to evacuate its women and children to prepare to house a militia company” (page 119, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited). He continues:

Already in mid-December, irregulars from nearby villages had taken up positions in Lifta, to defend the site but also to harass neighboring Jewish areas. The older villagers wanted peace but the youngsters, according to an HIS informant, “were all activist.” By the beginning of January, Lifta was suffering from a shortage of bread and already on 28 December women and children were reported evacuating the village. By 1 January, most of the villagers had apparently left (for Ramallah), but armed irregulars or Arab Legionnaires were still in place. On or around 15 January, the villagers were ordered to return home and apparently some, or most, did. A week later, the village was visited by ‘Abd al Qadir al Husseini, who ordered the menfolk to stay put and ‘the children, women and old’ to leave. Women and children were seen leaving.

Furthermore, while the Odeh’s home may well have housed Jewish immigrants from Yemen and Iraq at some point, Sanders should have mentioned that Lifta also temporarily housed Jewish refugees from just outside Jerusalem. According to Morris, “Lifta was settled with Jewish ‘refugees’ from the settlement of ‘Atarot, which had also fallen to the Jordanians.” Indeed, the displacement of Jews from Atarot, as well as Gush Etzion and Jerusalem’s Old City, underscore that populations on both sides of the war lost their homes and were displaced – a fact virtually ignored by Sanders.

While initially Sanders refers to a “battleground” involving Jewish militias and Arab fighters, he then goes on to mention only attacks emanating from one side – the Jewish fighters. About the attacks on the coffeehouse and bus, Morris writes:

The cycle of violence that precipitated Romema’s evacuation began with attacks on Jewish traffic leaving Jerusalem and the Haganah killing on 24 December of Atiya ‘Adel, the owner from Qaluyniya village, of the petrol station at Romema who, using a motorcycle, doubled as a scout and informant for the Arab irregulars about Jewish convoys. The following day, villagers avenged the attack by throwing a grenade at a Jewish bus. From then on, there were daily exchanges of fire in and around Romema (and Lifta) and the Haganah, IZL [Irgun] and LHI [Stern Gang] repeatedly raided the two sites. Romema was struck by two Haganah raids on the night of 26 December and by the IZL (which destroyed a petrol station and coffee shop, killing at least five Arabs) on 27 December.

Thus, there is a discrepancy between Morris and Sanders/Pappe as to whether the attacked coffeeshop and bus were in Lifta or nearby Romema. In either case, the fatal attack in which five Arabs were killed was not an isolated event, as portrayed in Sanders report. Researcher and Jerusalem Post columnist Seth Frantzman, who reviewed Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, informed CAMERA that on Dec. 15th, 1947 the Palestine Post reported that Arab fighters from Lifta, possibly members of the irregular forces, attacked the Jewish Romema quarter. On Jan. 19th, 1948, Yisrael Valtuch and Dr. O. Feldmann were wounded by sniper fire from Lifta and shots were also fired at a bus to Jerusalem. On Jan. 10, shots were fired from Lifta at Jews. On Jan. 20, Arab snipers in a house on the edge of Lifta fired at Jews. The Haganah went to the house and blew it up. According to the Palestine Post, Lifta residents claimed the attacks emanated from the Arab fighters who had infiltrated their village. On Jan. 30, the Palestine Post reported that five houses in Lifta were blown up by members of the Lehi. The Lehi had observed the houses being used by Arab fighters who had infiltrated the village and the Jewish fighters feared that the village would become a base of operations. 


Instead of dealing with the factual errors raised by CAMERA in Sanders’ article, the Los Angeles Times ran a laudatory online Opinion piece by Ghada Karmi accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and stealing everything Palestinian – from falafel to the hora. The Los Angeles Times must not be allowed to cover the tracks of a factually-challenged news article with an even more objectionable Op-Ed. 

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