Every year on March 30, exiled Palestinians return home to protest the Israeli occupation.
Iqrit – Like the rest of the indigenous Christian residents of this Galilee village near Lebanon’s border, Ameer Ashqar’s grandparents were told to leave for two weeks as the newly formed Israeli army swept through the Galilee region in 1948. Yet, as weeks turned into months and months into years, they knew they would not be able to go home.
“My grandfather was sent to al-Rama during the first evacuation. From there, he went to Acre,” he told Al Jazeera. “He is 87 years old. He still tells us stories about Iqrit and how it was. He can still draw a map of the village and how it was before the Nakba.”
Ashqar is one of eighteen activists who set up camp in Iqrit three years ago and do not plan on leaving any time soon. “We are here,” he commented. “We are not going anywhere.”
On May 15 each year, Palestinians mourn the Nakba (catastrophe), a commemoration of the 1948 establishment of Israel in the midst of the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced during the 1948 establishment of Israel and the 1967 Middle East war have swollen to more than five million United Nations-registered refugees living in refugee camps in the occupied Palestinian territories – the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the blockaded Gaza Strip – and neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
Yet, in 1948, tens of thousands of other Palestinians became “internally displaced persons”, remaining within the borders of what became Israel but prevented from returning to their ancestral cities, towns, and villages.
Defying an Israeli court order to allow Iqrit’s displaced residents to return to their homes, Israeli soldiers used dynamite and other explosives to bomb the homes and buildings in the village on Christmas Day in 1951.
Today, the activists live in several tents and a room on the side of Iqrit’s historic church. Last month, a large
to the broader Palestinian-Israeli problem.”]
Easter celebration, attended by hundreds of people, was only the most recent cultural event they held in the village. Designed to raise awareness about the plight of internally displaced Palestinians, they regularly hold lectures, workshops, concerts, religious celebrations and youth camps.
Returning has not been easy, Ashqar admits. Israeli Land Administration (ILA) officers have visited the camp several times and confiscated belongings. Last April, police arrested three activists who tried to prevent them from taking the campers’ mattresses.
ILA officers have also told the activists that they cannot build any new structures or plant gardens or crops. The ILA did not respond to Al Jazeera’s numerous requests for comment.
“The winter period was also very challenging for us,” Ashqar explained. “We stocked up wood and prepared ourselves well, but this winter was much worse than last year. It snowed and rained much more. But we’ve gotten used to the harshness of living outside.”
Next month they will hold a week-long youth camp called “Roots Camp” for children from seven to 17 years old. It will provide them with lectures, tours of the village, films and other events. “On the last day of the camp,” said Ashqar, “the kids will perform plays about Iqrit and how it was before the Nakba.”
Badil, a Bethlehem-based resource centre for residency and refugee rights, estimates that, when adjusted to include family growth over the last 67 years, there are more than 384,000 internally displaced Palestinians who live in Israel.
“According to international law, the only difference between a refugee and an internally displaced person, in terms of status, is that a refugee crosses an international border,” Manar Makhoul, researcher at Badil, told Al Jazeera. “In terms of their rights, they are identical. They are not separate problems – they are part of the same problem.”
Unlike UN-registered refugees, internally displaced Palestinian citizens of Israel have no international agency to advocate on their behalf or provide them with aid. In several cases, they have attempted to return to their ancestral villages, most of which remain partially intact, by taking their cases to Israeli courts.
Makhoul says Israel does not recognise internal displacement for “the same reason it doesn’t recognise Palestinian refugees – it refuses to take responsibility for their displacement”. Explaining that most of the land has been declared closed military zones, state land or custodial lands, he argues that most displaced Palestinians, among them refugees, could return to their land without displacing Israelis.
Wassim Ghantous, an activist whose family was displaced from Kufr Birim to Haifa in 1948, argues that Israel’s refusal to allow them to return to the village is part of its “colonial ideology to have more land and less Palestinians”.
“There is no protection mechanism, monitoring body or legal recognition [for internally displaced Palestinians]. There is no equivalent to UNRWA,” Ghantous told Al Jazeera, referring to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
Like in Iqrit, Kufr Birim’s first generation of displaced residents was told they could return. Yet, much of their land was divided and allocated to new Jewish communities in the area. Despite a court ruling in their favour, Israeli planes dropped bombs on the empty village in 1953, and destroyed much of the infrastructure. Today, only a historic church and a graveyard remain intact, and many of the homes are partially standing.
Ghantous is a member of al-Awda (the return), a committee that represents internally displaced persons with familial ties to Kufr Birim, which hugs the Lebanese border in the Galilee. Following Iqrit’s lead, al-Awda activists returned to Kufr Birim and have camped there since August 2013.
Like the activists in Iqrit, they say they have endured harassment from Israeli authorities time and again. In August 2014, ILA officers and police ransacked the camp, confiscating mattresses, tents, lights and food, as well as cutting off their electricity supply.
The number of activists camping there has decreased due to the pressure, but Ghantous maintains that they will stay in Kufr Birim.
According to Asad Ghanaem, a senior lecturer at Haifa University’s school of politics, activists who have carried out direct actions like returning to their destroyed villages are “taking into their own hands” what politicians have failed to do on their behalf.
“They will convince politicians that [returning] is worth taking seriously and that it’s part of our national
project,” Ghanaem told Al Jazeera. “Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan have a right to return. Here we have young people taking that idea seriously and implementing it.”
“If people take this seriously and continue, it can be one of the most important developments among Palestinians in Israel in recent history,” he argued. “It’s not enough to remember each year what happened to us in 1948; now we need a specific plan to move forward. Return is possible, and it will be one of the major contributions [of Palestinians in Israel] to the broader Palestinian-Israeli problem.”
Back in Iqrit, Ashqar says his grandfather is proud of the activists. “He always tells us he is very glad we returned,” he said. “He says he can die satisfied now. Now, we want people from all over Palestine to follow in our steps and go back to their villages.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_