The most unusual group of Knesset members met July 26 to support the rights of the residents of two Palestinian villages who have been denied to return to their villages for 68 years now. The group included members of the governing coalition Kulanu Party and the opposition Zionist Camp, as well as former Minister of Defense Moshe Arens.
Upon the invitation of Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, Eli Alaluf from the governing coalition Kulanu Party and Ofer Shelah from the Yesh Atid opposition bloc, 30 Knesset members met to publicly declare their support for the rights of the villagers from Iqrit and Kufr Birim.
Six months after the creation of the State of Israel, the residents of the villages in the north of Israel and close to the Lebanese borders were asked on Nov. 4, 1948, by the Israeli army to vacate the villages for two weeks for military operational reasons. They have not been allowed to return since, even though they are Israeli citizens and have continued to live in nearby villages and towns while constantly demanding the right to return.
Appeals by the residents of those villages to the Israeli Supreme Court led in July 1951 to a ruling that Iqrit and Kufr Birim’s residents living in Israel must be allowed to return, but the ruling was ignored. Israeli soldiers forced several of the residents to watch as all of their homes were blown up with dynamite and other explosives on Christmas Day 1953.
The only remaining building in the village of Iqrit is a small church and a cemetery. No Israelis have moved into the town, but the original residents are not allowed by the government of Israel to return.
Kufr Birim’s residents were also told in 1953 by Israel’s Supreme Court, two years after the 1951 ruling, that they would be allowed to return to their villages unless the military provides a reason to the contrary — but nothing changed.
At present, most of the land of Kufr Birim and nearby Iqrit has been converted into a state park, and much of the remaining land was divided among surrounding Jewish Israeli communities established after 1948.
Speaking at the Knesset meeting, Odeh reiterated the facts about the two villages. “In Israel, there are different versions and narratives on most cases, except the case of Iqrit and Kufr Birim. All in Israel agree that the villages were evacuated under false pretenses and that the Supreme Court has ruled that the villagers — who have not stopped their fight to return — have a right to build and live in their village.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor by phone, Odeh said that the efforts for the return of the villagers will continue and be fierce. “We are planning to deploy efforts over the course of one year, aimed at bringing onboard the Israeli public opinion and encouraging legislative action; the peak of these efforts will culminate in a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and a delegation representing every single party in Israel,” he said.
Odeh added that a petition will be signed by a vast majority of Israeli leaders, which will be published in major newspapers; a march from Iqrit and Kufr Birim to Jerusalem will be organized as part of this campaign.
In addition to the Supreme Court ruling, a ministerial committee established by late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 recommended the villagers’ return and stated that “there is no reason to prevent the displaced villagers” from returning and that “it is the government’s duty to assist them in doing so.” Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and the recommendations have never been implemented by the successive Israeli governments.
Nimeh Ashqar, the chairman of the Iqrit Community Association, said in a TV interview July 29 that serious efforts are being made to create a lobby of 61 members of the Knesset (out of 120) that support the right of the villagers to return to their villages.
In addition to the legal and political efforts, villagers have continued to use the remaining church to hold their weddings and they are burying their dead in the cemetery.
Summer camps for descendants of the original residents and supporters of the villagers’ rights have taken place in Iqrit every year since 1995; the adults have organized Roots Camp — an educational and entertainment event on the village grounds for the younger generation.
Israeli governments have been opposing the return of Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship, for fear that this will create a precedent for all Palestinians in terms of the right of return, Ashqar said in the TV interview.
Al-Monitor has learned from several village activists that efforts are being made by supporters and Knesset allies to get former heads of the Israeli intelligence service and Supreme Court judges to state that the return of the original residents to their villages will not necessarily be a precedent.
While unique in many ways, the story of Iqrit and Kufr Birim reflects the catastrophe that has fallen on Palestinians since 1948. The Nakba, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees who now are in the millions, continues to be the living symbol of the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The fact that villagers in Iqrit and Kufr Birim were Israeli citizens when they were asked to leave and received a ruling in their favor from the Israeli Supreme Court and a ministerial committee is a reflection on the clear discrimination and racism that Palestinians in Israel face.