As though it happened yesterday …
Lutfallah Atallah, 70, stood in front of a photograph hung at the entrance to the ruins of a church in his hometown of Iqrit in Upper Galilee. The photo was taken during the exodus of the town’s residents upon the occupation of Iqrit in 1948. Atallah set about putting names to faces: “This is me as a kid, when I was 6 years old. This is my brother Mokhlis, this is Bahia Shiban Kassis and her daughter Nuzha, and this is Ibrahim Kassis.”
In this photo, which residents of Iqrit secured from the archives of the Israeli army, soldiers are pictured surrounding a group of residents, before dragging them away and demolishing their houses one by one. The church was the only building to escape destruction, for fear that the West would frown upon such an act.
The story has remained alive, remembered as though it happened yesterday. These village youth, who have now become gray-haired, vividly evoke their memories and their grandchildren recite it as accurately as those who lived through it.
Lutfallah recalls, “They gathered the residents of the village, put us in the army vehicles and took us to the town of al-Rama. They said we would return within 15 days. Yet, they demolished our village; days, months and years passed by and we did not return. They took our 34,000 acres of land away, built agriculture settlements and transformed our fields into grazing land for their cows.”
Lutfallah and others, however, did not leave their village behind. They assiduously devoted themselves to breathing life into it by incessantly frequenting the village with their families. They held their events on its land and buried their beloved in its soil. Ghossoun Ayoub, a 73-year-old resident who was deported at age 8, returns to the village today with his five children and seven grandchildren. He said, “I forget nothing about those days, childhood memories are to be forever remembered.”
The energetic, chic old man whose gold chain necklace replenishes his youth, remembers every single detail about the village prior to the exodus and demolition: the names, the places, the houses, the fields, the school and even the teacher. As he points his finger, he calls to mind the 77-acre plot of land owned by his family. It has now become grazing land, thickly occupied with cow farms belonging to the Jewish farming villages.
These youth of yesterday recall stories that ignite the hearts of the elders with nostalgia and shape the feelings and minds of the youth. One of them recounts when, one night, his father sent his brother to a village by the Lebanese border, a stones throw from Iqrit, to retrieve two bottles of Arak — a type of alcoholic beverage. “As soon as dinner was served, the kid was back home with the Lebanese Arak.”
Only a short distance away lies the Lebanese village of Marwahin, where a mosque with a high minaret stands between the houses.
Recently, when the July war of 2006 took place, the residents of the Jewish agricultural villages — established on the lands of Iqrit and adjacent villages — took off, fearing the bombardment. The residents of Iqrit, however, did not run away. Instead, they took advantage of the situation to return to their village. Ayoub added, “The Jews fled the area; we returned. Do you know why? Because they have no roots in this soil, they were not born here. We were born here, that’s why we came back and they ran away.”
Iqrit is one of 418 Palestinian villages that were demolished and whose residents were forced to move during and following the 1948 war, which resulted in the establishment of the Israeli State on the remains of the Palestinian people. Yet, the residents who were displaced to an adjacent village were luckier than the 670,000 Palestinians who were sent outside the inchoate state and still live in shoddily constructed camps in nearby countries and areas such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Despite the fact that the residents of Iqrit remained close to their village, the dream of return was not achieved, even though the Supreme Court of Israel ruled in their favor in 1951.
The head of the Iqrit Residents Committee, Ibrahim Atallah, said: “In July 1951, [the court] decision allowed us to return to the village, yet authorities refused to carry out the decision issued by the highest judicial authority. Only months later, the Israeli army demolished the houses one after the other.”
What was even more painful is that the Israeli authorities decided to demolish their village on Christmas eve. Father Suhail Khoury spoke on that issue: “Choosing Christmas eve to demolish our village holds religious connotations; they wanted to insinuate that this land is for the Jews only.” Khoury explains that refraining from destructing the church on that day was the result of the convention on religious rights that Israel signed upon joining the United Nations; therefore it realized that demolishing the church would have sparked Western wrath.
Even though the 500 residents of Iqrit were scattered between 18 villages and towns, they persevered in living as a group, protecting their dream to come back and passing the dream on to new generations. As a result, they established a committee to organize their efforts, known as the Iqrit Residents Committee, and assigned one of the residents as a church pastor. They started to hold services once a month, while some even celebrated religious events in the village. Additionally, every summer the youth organized a summer camp that features stories recounted by elders about the village, including both happy and painful memories.
The latest prominent development was the decision taken by the youth to return to the village and settle in the church to emphasize their right of return. Geryes Khayat, a 19-year-old university student, relayed his impressions: “When we organized the summer camp on the land of our village last summer, we decided to stay in [the church] and we have been here ever since. We have the court decision [that permits] our return to our land and village. We will keep working toward achieving this right, no matter how long it takes. Whoever has such beautiful land will never leave it.”
With the support of their families, the youth of Iqrit have built a kitchen and bathrooms for the church, and brought mattresses, a television, books and food, and settled in it.
Amir Tohme, an 18-year-old university student, said that he came from Haifa — about an hour away — to live in the church and spend the night with his peers. We want to impose the reality on the ground as they did … people are attached to the village. Last Easter, three families came here to celebrate.”
The village is a sight to behold. It is located on a hill near the Lebanese border, overlooking green fields. The residents, who frequently visit it, sit under the heavy canopy of lush trees to contemplate the beautiful fields as if they were on a trip. Yet, for them the trip is not meant to last for a day or two; it is rather a trip to forever stay in their homeland.
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