Sunday, June 9, 2013

The return to Iqrit

Descendants of those expelled from one Palestinian village during the creation of Israel are trying to reclaim the land.

Al-Jazeera – 9 June 2013

Iqrit, Israel – A dream long nurtured by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians made refugees during the establishment of the state of Israel has become a concrete reality at a small makeshift camp atop a windswept hill.

A dozen young men have set up the camp at a site in the Upper Galilee from which their grandparents were expelled more than six decades ago.

Today, all that remains of the village of Iqrit, close to Israel’s border with Lebanon, is a Catholic church on the hill’s brow. But in 1948, the village was home to 600 Christian Palestinians.

Walaa Sbeit, one of the camp’s leaders, said the group had been inspired by a vision of rebuilding their village.

“We never lost the connection to this place,” he said. “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.”

The nakba

In 1948, some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from more than 400 villages as the new state of Israel was declared on a large part of their homeland – an event known to Palestinians as the nakba, or “catastrophe”. The refugees – mostly descendants of those driven from their homes – now number around five million, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Nearly all the emptied villages were later destroyed by the Israeli army to prevent the inhabitants, and the generations which would follow them, from ever returning home.

“Until we moved in, the only way back to our village was in a coffin,” said Sbeit, a 26-year-old music teacher in Haifa, 50km away. “We have the right to bury our dead in the village cemetery, but not to rebuild the homes that were taken from us.”

Sbeit and his friends have been staying at Iqrit in shifts since August, living in an improvised annex to the church that houses a sitting area and kitchen.

They have tin shacks nearby serving as a toilet and shower, and two donkeys. Saplings they planted and a chicken coop were destroyed by the police, Sbeit added, as he perched on the edge of one of the outdoor beds the group have been using since the winter rains ended.

The villagers of Iqrit belong to Israel’s minority of 1.4 million Palestinian citizens, a quarter of whom were displaced from their orginal homes in 1948. Today, the Palestinian minority live in more than 100 Palestinian communities that survived the Israeli army’s advance.

A practical plan

Sbeit and his companions are at the forefront of a movement among the refugees inside Israel to turn the right of return from an what has sounded like an increasingly empty slogan into a practical plan of action.

Although Iqrit’s 80 homes are long gone, a residents’ committee is due to publish a master plan for the village in the 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.

The plan has been drawn up by a professional planner from the Technion, Israel’s leading technical university.

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.”

Broken promises

It is not entirely surprising that Iqrit should be leading the way on the refugee issue.

Iqrit’s inhabitants were neither expelled nor forced into flight, as happened in most other villages. They surrendered in November 1948.

According to 70-year-old Lutfallah Atallah, the villagers agreed to leave Iqrit after receiving a promise that they would be allowed to return when the army had completed its operations in the area. Shortly afterwards their village was declared a closed military area.

“We were put in army vehicles and driven to the village of Rama, and told we would be allowed to return within 15 days,” said Atallah. “We’re still waiting.”

Israel does not deny that the promise was made, and the villagers’ right to return was backed by the country’s supreme court in 1951. Six months later, the army blew up the houses in a move designed to stop the ruling being enforced.

Shadia Sbeit, coordinator for the Iqrit residents’ committee, said that in the early 1990s, under growing pressure to honour its pledge to the villagers, a government panel agreed to set aside a small area for Iqrit to be rebuilt. The deal fell through when the prime minister of the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated.

A later prime minister, Ariel Sharon, decided in 2002 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.

Zeidan called that reasoning “nonsensical”.

“The refugees from Iqrit are all Israeli citizens,” he said. “Letting them back will not make Israel any less ‘Jewish’.”

Ethnic cleansing?

The villagers’ push to recreate Iqrit comes as Israel’s treatment of the refugees from 1948 is under renewed scrutiny, particularly in relation to the circumstances in which the refugees abandoned their homes – and whether Israel’s leaders ordered a program of ethnic cleansing.

Documents recently unearthed by an Israeli researcher, Shay Hazkani, confirm suspicions that a historical claim Israel has used as its chief justification for denying the refugees’ right of return to their homes was 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. More