Amir Ashkar, second from left, and Walaa Sbait, second from right, are among two dozen Palestinian youth who have returned to Iqrit.(Jillian Kestler-D'Amours)
A steep and rocky dirt road leads up to the village of Iqrit. Overlooking the rolling hills of the northern Galilee and Lebanon, Iqrit is unusually active these days, as two dozen Palestinian youth recently moved back to the village their families were forced to flee in 1948.
“It’s a priority for me to be in Iqrit. Since I was five, I’ve been hearing, ‘Iqrit, Iqrit, Iqrit.’ It became a part of me,” explained 18-year-old Amir Ashkar, sitting around a wood stove, in a small room where the group of mostly young men cooks and sleeps.
“Injustice has been done to me and I see myself as working against injustice,” Ashkar added. Iqrit is a Palestinian Christian village located on a hilltop in the Galilee, some 25 kilometers north of Akka (Acre), in modern-day Israel. The village was ethnically cleansed in 1948, shortly after the creation of the Israeli state, and its residents were never allowed to return to their homes.
Only the local cemetery and church remain of the original village today, while stones that once made up houses are scattered among tall blades of grass.
Last August, a group of third-generation, internally displaced Palestinian youth returned to Iqrit. Living in two small rooms, built as extensions of the church, the young men sleep in the village in shifts. They maintain a constant presence in the village.
Walaa Sbait, 26, remembers hearing stories about how his grandparents would walk through the fields of Iqrit and collect vegetables and other plants. “We grew up loving this place. We were raised on that phrase, to return to Iqrit,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
He said that seeing the next generation of children from Iqrit, who weren’t as connected to the village as they were, pushed the group to move back. “We said, ‘We have to do something,’” Sbait explained. “This place, we were raised on loving it. We want to keep its legacy and keep its fight alive.”
Nearly 500 Palestinian residents originally inhabited Iqrit in some 70 houses. Village lands covered almost 25,000 dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) and counted an elementary school, two olive presses, two granaries and dozens of rainwater collection systems.
On 31 October 1948, the Israeli army’s Battalion 92 arrived in Iqrit, and instructed residents to vacate their homes under the pretext that the army needed to conduct military training exercises.
It was later revealed that the original request to evacuate Iqrit for only 14 days was actually designed to mask a deliberate scheme to expel villagers from their homes. After nine months, Iqrit’s lands were declared a “restricted military area,” the army uprooted those villagers who had stayed behind and denied civilian access to the area.
Some 750,000 — three-quarters of the Palestinian population — fled or were expelled from their homes in the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948. Later, more than 500 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed by Israeli forces to prevent the return of the refugees.
The Israeli high court ruled in 1951 that residents of Iqrit had the right to return to their homes since they were forcibly evicted under false pretenses. The Israeli army ignored the ruling, however, and subsequently destroyed the village. Two years later, the Israeli government designated all Iqrit lands to be state-owned, under the control of the Israeli Land Administration.
Decades later, in 1993, the Libai committee, appointed by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also concluded that Iqrit residents had a right to return to their homes. Still, no official return was ever implemented.
Faced with this lack of implementation, residents of Iqrit returned to their village twice before: the first time was between 1971 and 1977, and then between 1995 and 1999.
“This year, we have to raise our case on the public agenda and among the decision makers,” said Nemi Ashkar, Amir’s father. “Our aim is to approach the relevant ministers and the prime minister’s office in order for them to deal with us. We believe that our case is a just case.”
He added that implementing return themselves — as the group of youth is currently doing — is an important step in the overall struggle in Iqrit. “If we want to fulfill our dream and return back, we have to do it on the ground,” he said.
While most Palestinians were displaced from their homes in 1948, some 150,000 Palestinians remained inside the newly-formed state, including 40,000 who were internally displaced. These Palestinian citizens of Israel were governed, and their movement restricted, by Israeli military law until 1966.
“We didn’t fall from the sky”
Israel also instituted a slew of administrative and legal restrictions on Palestinian citizens. Israel’s Absentee Property Law of 1950, for instance, was used to appropriate Palestinian buildings and transfer them to the state, and eventually, in many cases, to Jewish families. Internally displaced Palestinians were also designated “present absentees” under this law, and thus unable to reclaim their properties.
“We, the some 250,000 internally displaced, part of the Palestinian Arab minority, citizens of this state, did not fall from the sky,” stated the National Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel, in a manifesto from 1999.
“We are not immigrants, but natives in our land. The Israeli government is not allowed — on ethical, moral, legal, and political grounds — to keep us displaced in our homeland, far from our towns and villages of origin. International law and principles protect our natural right of return.”
According to Umar Ighbarieh, director of tours to destroyed Palestinian villages at Zochrot, an Israeli organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the Nakba, Iqrit sets an important example for other internally displaced Palestinians who also dream of returning to their homes.
“Inside Israel, the people still have the opportunity to have this kind of resistance, this kind of struggle, in order to return to their [homes]. It needs courage. It needs leadership. It needs building a plan of how to return and to be willing to [pay] the price for that, also,” Ighbarieh said.
“Sense of alienation”
In a December 2012 survey, Badil, a Bethlehem-based resource center for Palestinian residency and refugee rights, surveyed self-perception and identity issues among Palestinian youth in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and inside Israel.
The poll found that most youth put Palestinian identity above citizenship or residency, and valued developing a framework whereby all Palestinians — not only those in the West Bank and Gaza — are represented and are included in decision-making (“One people united: A deterritorialized Palestinian identity,” Badil, December 2012 [PDF].)
“After 65 years living in different political, economic, social environments, there is something that still connects all of them: a Palestinian experience, a Palestinian shared fate, a Palestinian identity,” said Dr. Manar Makhoul, Badil’s networking and advocacy officer.
“A sense of alienation and displacement, that is the common denominator between all Palestinian groups, even Palestinians inside Israel. They are alienated even when they are present in their own homeland.”
For Amir Ashkar, the most important part about returning to Iqrit has been the bonds he has built with other members of the community, and with the village itself.
“We have become a family,” Ashkar said. “They destroyed not just houses here, but also our culture. They destroyed the people themselves. Coming back to our land is like coming back to our identity.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at jkdamours.com.