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Palestinians camp out for right of return

Occupations of Biram and Iqrit in northern Israel may serve as models for other displaced Palestinians.

Last Modified: 10 Sep 2013 16:33
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Baram National Park, Israel - The remote Baram National Park - nestled along Israel's winding border with Lebanon - hasn't seen so much traffic in decades.

The tourist site sits on the former Palestinian village of Kafr Biram, which has been uninhabited since Israeli forces destroyed it in 1953. But now activists are hoping to change that.

"We always wanted to come back," said George Ghantous, a 31-year-old activist in the village. "We grew up with a feeling of not belonging to one place, we have the desire to return."

A month ago, Ghantous and other young Palestinian citizens of Israel set up an encampment in the remains of the village that their grandparents left in the months following the creation of the state of Israel. They are calling for Israel to recognise their right to return.

During Israel's creation in 1948, hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people were made refugees.

On a recent Saturday, dozens of former residents of Kafr Biram and their descendants gathered for services at the recently restored Maronite Church. 

Father Afif Makhoul, head of Biram's church, said he has encouraged people to return for the sake of the church.

"It's not my role to ask people to return as a political statement. But as priest of Biram, I believe the parishioners should come back to their church," he said.

The church has long played a central role in the community, which is displaced in towns and cities across Israel's north. Church services are held one day, early on Saturdays, the second day of Israel's official weekend, to give people time to travel to the village.

Ghantous, who described himself as secular and sat outside during religious services, said the church was "a unifying symbol of resistance" for the community.

Right to return

The Baram National Park was created around a synagogue that Israel says dates back to the 4th century CE. But like many Israeli tourist sites, there is little information about the Palestinians that once lived on these lands.

However, evidence of that population is found in the ruins of the mostly destroyed homes that sit just adjacent to the park. Embossed crosses sit above what was once the doorway to a Christian family's home, while inside ceilings and entire walls are missing in rooms overrun with vegetation.

The Nature and Parks Authority doesn't charge people from Kafr Biram the usual $4 entrance fee like it does for other visitors. It collects the garbage and allows access to the bathrooms. But Israeli police have said the protesters are trespassing on state lands, and warned them to leave.

A few hours after the Saturday Church service, Yaman Zaidan, a human rights lawyer in Israel, gave a training speech stressing non-violent tactics if the police come to remove the encampment.

Zaidan told villagers to remind authorities when they come that Israel's Supreme Court recognised their right to return to the village, and stressed the importance of non-violent resistance.  

Ghantous said the goal of the camp is to "make [our presence] here last longer. Most important is that it's a prototype for other villagers to do the same. We want this to be a phenomenon."

While the return to destroyed Palestinian villages might not yet be a phenomenon, Biram isn't a unique example.

Protesters here said they were inspired by a similar action last year by youth returning to the village of Iqrit, some 20km west of Biram, where they have remained ever since.

'Security belt'

In his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Israeli historian Benny Morris documented how residents of villages such as Biram and Iqrit in Israel's north were made to leave in the months after Israel's creation, so the army could "create and maintain a northern border ‘security belt' clear of Arabs".

Morris wrote that Israel's army didn't discriminate in its destruction of Palestinian villages. However, some Israeli officials wanted to maintain good relations with Christians and allowed them to either stay in the nascent state, or return to Lebanon, to which they had fled during the state's creation.

But the Israeli army and internal security apparatus worried that allowing residents to return to the land would be an "endorsement of the refugees' claims to the lands", and would "undermine the existence" of Jewish settlements built there.

To prevent their return, the army destroyed Iqrit on Christmas Eve in 1951, using explosives. And after being inhabited by Jewish residents for almost two years, Kafr Biram was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets in September 1953.

On a visit to the one-year-old protest encampment at Iqrit's Church, a Jewish-Israeli family from the neighbouring town of Shomera, parts of which are built on Iqrit lands, was unfamiliar with that history.

The Israeli mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said she had no knowledge of Palestinian villages such as Iqrit existing before 1948. "History lessons don't teach us," she said.

Her husband, holding the couple's newborn, said, "I want to teach my daughters about this place because it's a holy place for Christians."

He said he was familiar with the presence of Palestinian Arabs in Iqrit from his grandfather, a Moroccan Jew who immigrated to Palestine before Israel's founding in 1948. When asked about the villagers' claims to return he said, "If the government wants them to return, I don't have a problem with that."

Despite Israel's Supreme Court recognising the right of villagers from both villages to return to their land in decisions handed down in the early 1950s, they have so far been prevented from doing so by the army and other officials, who've warned of the precedent it would set for other Palestinian refugees.

As sunset approached in Iqrit, a small unmanned drone flew in circles less than 50 metres above the village encampment. Then the small aircraft suddenly paused mid-air and fell straight to the ground, an Israeli army truck appeared and soldiers loaded the aircraft into the boot.

For now these actions to return might be small and limited to Iqrit and Biram. But with Palestinian refugees from similarly destroyed villages numbering in the millions, there's little doubt the government will be watching these two villages closely.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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