I’ve been following with great interest an ongoing campaign by Palestinian citizens of Israel to reestablish their village of Iqrit, which was depopulated of its inhabitants in 1948 and destroyed by the Israeli military a few years later. In its way, I think this story shines an important light on the reverberations caused by the founding of a Jewish state in historic Palestine – and how they continue to resonate profoundly even today.
Iqrit was a Palestinian Christian village in northern Galilee which was emptied of it inhabitants in November, 1948. Unlike residents of other Arab villages in Palestine, Iqrit’s inhabitants weren’t forcibly expelled and they did not flee. Rather, they surrendered to Israeli military forces with the promise that they would be able to return in two weeks at the end of military operations.
Most of Iqrit’s 490 inhabitants were transferred to a nearby village, taking only basic necessities – shortly thereafter, the area was declared a military zone and the villagers were forbidden from returning. The villagers took their case to Israel’s Supreme Court, which ruled in July 1951 that they must be permitted to return to their homes. On Christmas Eve of that year, however, the Israeli military demolished the village and took it over for “state use,” leaving only the church and the cemetery intact. Since that time, Iqrit’s former inhabitants have been allowed to hold services in the church and bury their dead in the cemetery, but have not been allowed to return.
Now decades later, the villagers and their descendants are seeking to return and rebuild their ancestral village. In the words of Walaa Sbait, a young music teacher who lives in Haifa: “At the moment Iqrit people have the right to return only in a coffin, but we want to live here.”
Sbait is among a group of remarkable young activists who have literally been returning to the village from which their grandparents were exiled. Last summer set up a makeshift camp in Iqrit and have been staying there in shifts, living in an improvised annex to the church that houses a sitting area and kitchen. Nearby tin shacks provide showers and toilets. (They also planted saplings and built a chicken coop, which were subsequently demolished.)
We never lost the connection to this place. Every summer we hold a summer school here for the children to learn about the village and their past. And once a month the villagers hold a service at the church. For us, this was always our real home.
When I visited the website of the Iqrit Community Association, I was deeply moved by the palpable sense of community expressed by the ancestors of this lost village. Reading through their extensive testimonies and reports, it became powerfully clear to me that their passion for return has kept this community intact long after the bricks and mortar of their village were destroyed.
The new camp established at Iqrit is only the beginning. According to a recent article by journalist Jonathan Cook, a residents’ committee is due to publish a master plan for the village this summer, showing how it would be possible to build a modern community of 450 homes, including a school, for the villagers-in-exile, who today number 1,500.
Iqrit’s refugees are also involved in a pilot project to work out the practicalities of implementing the right of return, understanding the legal, technical and psychological problems facing the refugees.
“This really is a historic moment for the Palestinian community,” said Mohammed Zeidan, head of the Nazareth-based Human Rights Association, which has been helping to organise the project. “For the first time, we are acting rather than just talking.
“The villagers are not waiting for Israel to respond to their grievance, they are actively showing Israel what the return would look like.”
For those who scoff at the Palestinians’ desire for Israel to honor their right of return, this case represents an important challenge. Indeed, it is all to easy to dismiss the claims of refugees, who have precious little political clout. It is far more difficult, however, to brush off similar claims of Palestinians who are actually citizens of the State of Israel.
According to Cook, there were some Israeli government attempts to set aside a small area for Iqrit to be rebuilt in the early 1990s. However in 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that the promise to the villagers of Iqrit (and another village, Biram) could not be implemented because it “would set a precedent for the return of other refugees and threaten Israel’s Jewish majority.”
It seems clear to me that beyond this “demographic slippery slope” argument lies a more fundamental issue: by granting the Iqrit’s villagers’ request, Israel would be making a tacit admission that it committed an injustice by depopulating and destroying a Palestinian village and refusing to allow its residents to return. And if it does so in this case, it would also be forced to admit that it did so in literally hundreds of others cases throughout historic Palestine in 1947/48.
Jonathan Cook’s article thoroughly explores this critical point, noting that the Iqrit villagers’ campaign to rebuild is occurring just as Israel’s treatment of Palestinian refugees from 1948 is coming under renewed public scrutiny. In particular, recent files unearthed by Israeli researchers have confirmed suspicions that Israel’s chief historical claim for denying the refugees’ right of return – namely that Arab leaders had ordered the Palestinian villagers to leave – was essentially invented by Israeli officials:
The files, located in the state archives, reveal that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s prime minister in 1948 and for many years afterwards, set up a research unit in the early 1960s to try to prove that Arab leaders had ordered the Palestinian villagers to leave.
Israel’s move was a response to growing pressure from the United States president of the time, John F Kennedy, that it allow several hundred thousand refugees to return to their lands.
I encourage you to read Jonathan Cook’s article in full and to visit the website of the Iqrit Community Association. I cannot help but be struck by the Palestinian dream of return – and the obvious resonances it evokes for me as a Jew. The concept of return is part of the spiritual DNA of my religious tradition – but I fervently believe we are being challenged to honestly confront what has the Zionist “return” has wrought. How do we understand a Jewish “right of return” to Israel that grants automatic citizenship to any Jew anywhere in the world while denying that same right to the very people who actually lived on this land not long ago?
And can any “return” truly be complete as long as it denies that right to others?