The village, The community
The village, The community & The displacement tragedy
The Village & The Community
The village of Iqrit lies in the heights of Upper Galilee, some 15 miles northeast of Acre. In 1948, its population numbered 490 people who lived in 70 houses. All of the inhabitants were Greek Catholic Arabs.
Iqrit land area covered 24,591 dunams , of which 16,012 were privately owned and 8,000 were under ownership dispute with the neighboring villages of Fassouta and Me’ilia. Iqrit’s inhabitants made their living by raising crops and herding sheep, goats and cattle. They cultivated close to 4,500 dunams of seasonal crops, including mainly tobacco, legumes, olive groves, figs, pomegranates, and grapes and the remainder of their land was devoted to grazing.
The village had one elementary school, two olive presses, two granaries, two springs and dozens of rainwater storage wells dug in courtyards and orchards around the village.
The Displacement Tragedy
Iqrit’s tragedy began on October 31, 1948, when Battalion 92 of the Israeli Army arrived in the area as part of Operation Hiram, which was aimed at completing the Israeli occupation of Upper Galilee and deploying forces along Israel’s northern border.
The army entered the village without any resistance from the inhabitants and in full coordination with the village representatives, the military command and Jewish neighbors of Kibbutz Ayalon, who accompanied the armed forces as they entered the village. All the inhabitants remained in their houses when the army officers and troops entered the village, and continued to lead their normal life, fearing no violence or injury.
About a week later, a commander contacted village representatives to ask that the inhabitants vacate their homes for a period of two weeks, since it was the army’s intention, as he put it, to carry out training and other military activities that might threaten the villagers’ lives in the area. The commander promised the village priest and other representatives that the evacuation would be only for two weeks, and suggested that the villagers leave their belongings at in their houses and take only food and water with them.
On November 8, the inhabitants of Iqrit were taken by army trucks and cars to the village of Rame, about 25 minutes ride from Iqrit. Fifty men and the priest were left behind to watch over the houses and belongings.
When two weeks had passed and following their understanding of the military authorities, the villagers contacted Rame’s Military Governor and asked for his permission to return home. (In those days, the Galilee was under martial law and any travel by Arab civilians was subject to the local commander’s approval). To their astonishment, the Military Governor refused their request and did so repeatedly on several later occasions. In time it was made evident that the original request to evacuate Iqrit for only 14 days was actually designed to mask a deliberate scheme to expel the villagers from their homes. Nine months after the event, Iqrit’s lands were declared “restricted military area”, the army evacuated the villagers who had stayed behind and denied civilian access to the area.
The Struggle for Return
When it finally became absolutely clear that the foot-dragging was deliberate and that there was no intention of letting the villagers return to Iqrit, they organized and took the brave step of appealing to the Israel High Court of Justice to order the Minister of Defense and the Government of Israel to let the villagers return home. Their appeal was accepted, and on July 31, 1951, the court made a landmark ruling, ordering the minister to allow the villagers of Iqrit to return! This ruling is yet to be implemented.
In order to prevent any possibility of return, the Israeli army committed the crime of blowing up and destroying the village houses on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1951 !
All the houses were demolished, except for the church building and cemetery.
In 1953, the State of Israel seized Iqrit’s lands under the Expropriation for Public Purposes Law
which allowed such land takeovers for defense or agricultural development purposes. Under this law, Iqrit’s lands were now owned by the state and, from 1960 onwards, by the State Land Administration.
Over the next several years, under the shadow of the martial law in the Galilee area, Iqrit’s inhabitants found it difficult to rally public support for their struggle, not to mention pressuring Israeli governments into concessions. The displaced villagers’ campaign was hardly more than contacting this or that official, so as to receive promises that were never kept. This went on until the Military Administration of Palestinian villages was abolished in 1966, and then the elders of Iqrit came to the village and announced a sit-down strike pending full return. At the same time, while the sit-down was in progress, the church building was renovated and the villagers resumed their prayers there. The cemetery was also renovated and became the only burial spot for all Iqrit families, an arrangement formally approved by Israeli authorities and which is in force to this day.
Significant public pressure began in the early 1970’s and was led by Bishop Joseph Raya, who managed to rally a broad-based public support by both Arabs and Jews. This phase of the struggle culminated in the massive demonstration in front of the Israeli Government buildings in Jerusalem, and the hunger strike in front of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.
Ever since the displacement, government officials have been promising to redress past wrongs, and acknowledging the displaced villagers right to return to Iqrit. During the electoral campaign that was to raise him to power in 1977, Menachem Begin announced that his future government would let the villagers of both Iqrit and Bir’im (similarly displaced) return to their lands – another empty promise as it turned out.
In the early 1980’s, Iqrit captured the headlines once again, with the general Israeli public showing empathy and support for the displaced villagers’ right to return to their homes. Many intellectuals, celebrities and artists led a public movement to promote their cause.
When the Labor Party returned to power in 1992, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed Justice Minister David Libay to head a ministerial committee to look into the matter of the villagers displaced from Iqrit and Bir’im and submit its conclusions and recommendations to the government. Following 18 months deliberations and meetings with government officials, representatives of neighboring (Jewish) settlements and other relevant parties, the Libay Committee presented its findings, as follows:
- There is no reason to prevent the displaced villagers of Iqrit and Bir’im from returning
- The Israeli government should recognize the right of these villagers to return and rebuild their villages
- It is the government’s duty to assist them in doing so
- It is the government’s duty to compensate the displaced persons and their descendants for having demolished their houses and expropriated their lands
Village representatives welcomed these recommendations as a significant breakthrough and a reasonable basis for righting the age-old wrongs. Some specific conclusions were unacceptable to them, though, and they submitted their reservations, which were then negotiated between the parties. The Libay Committee recommendations, however, were never submitted for the government ratification, nor given the power of a government resolution as customary in Israel.
Since the committee`s recommendations were never discussed by the government, foot dragging was resumed. Hence, given the lack of any actual progress, the village representatives decided to appeal once more to the High Court of Justice, to order the Government of Israel to formally accept and implement the Libay Committee recommendations, as well as the reservations later submitted on behalf of the displaced villagers.
The appeal was made while negotiations with government officials continued. After Rabin’s murder and the elections that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power for the first time in 1996, Justice Minister Yitzhak Hanegbi was appointed as the government’s representative for the negotiations with the displaced villagers. When Ehud Barak of the Labor Party was elected Prime Minister in 1999, Justice Minister Joseph Beilin was appointed as his replacement. Both governments declared through both Justice ministers that the Libay Committee’s findings were acceptable to them and that they wished to reach a settlement based thereon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, once again, it all came to nothing.
In 2002, the Government of Ariel Sharon decided to reject the Libay Committee recommendations. Following that resolution, the High Court of Justice rejected the villagers’ appeal, but suggested that the government should reconsider the matter favorably, when political circumstances allowed (sic).
The government resolutions and the rulings of the High Court of Justice, together with public and media apathy, and the shock and disappointment of the village community, pushed the Iqrit representatives to resume their struggle for their just causes.
All villagers displaced from Iqrit and their descendants live in Israel, mostly in Rame, Haifa and Kafr Yasif. All community members, old and young, firmly believe in the justice of their struggle and will never renounce their right to return to their home village and resume their community life as equal citizens in a democratic state. All community members have individual as well as collective rights to Iqrit lands and assets. Based on these inalienable rights, the former inhabitants of Iqrit demand:
- Recognition by the Government of Israel of its moral and legal responsibility for the injustice suffered by the displaced persons of Iqrit
- Return of all community members to their home village
- Rebuilding Iqrit on its lands
- Compensating the villagers for the demolition of their houses and the loss of their crops over the years
- Revoking the administrative expropriation and closure orders