By EA Veronica, Southern West Bank.
Driving out of the Israeli city of Haifa with Nabil Toumi, we pass through the industrial outskirts of this port city and into the lush green countryside of the Western Galilee. My host begins to point out Palestinian-Israeli villages and towns – Kfar Yasif, Mi’ilya, Fassuta, the Druze villages of Julis and Yirka. Approximately 20% of the Israeli population is Palestinian-Israeli and almost half of them, over 600,000 people, live here in the north of Israel.
Nabil also shows me the tell-tale sign of a deserted Palestinian village – cactus plants that once functioned as fences around Palestinian homes and property. Little else can be seen in these places – occasionally some ruins of homes, or in the case of Dayr al-Qasi an abandoned school building atop a hill, empty glassless windows looking out over the valley below.
We are on our way to mass in a church in one such deserted village and Nabil’s ancestral home – the Palestinian Christian village of Iqrit. Along with about 600 other Palestinian villages now within the State of Israel, Iqrit was forcibly evacuated during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, known to Palestinians in Arabic as al-Nakba (the Catastrophe) and to Israelis as the War of Independence. I am visiting on the 67th anniversary of Iqrit’s evacuation, which took place from 6-8 November 1948. During this time, Nabil’s father and mother, who were young children then, along with the rest of the 490 villagers were told by Israeli forces to leave their homes for two weeks for ‘security reasons’.But the two weeks became two months and two years… The families were transferred to a nearby town to await their return. Nabil says, “In 1951 an Israeli High Court decision forced the government to let the people return to Iqrit, but before they had a chance to return, on 24 December, the army destroyed the village”. Only the church and the cemetery were left standing.
The 24,000 dunams (2,400 hectares) of land belonging to Iqrit were subsequently declared ‘state land’ belonging to the Israeli government. The Iqrit families and their descendants, who are citizens of Israel, have fought since then to return to their village and rebuild their homes. Although they are spread across the region, their struggle to return unites them. As Nabil tells me, “Our main goal is to keep the community because the community creates the hope that some day we will return. We are fighting for our community”. In 2003, the families went to court for the fifth time to demand their right to return. It was denied. “It will remain the same until the political situation and security conditions change. When these will change, I don’t know,” says Nabil.The community is out in numbers for this monthly mass, traveling from their homes in the region. Nemi, a member of the congregation, tells me about the steps they have been taking to improve the church. They recently won a six-year battle to get electricity supplied there. A tarmac track to the church has been rebuilt after being demolished by the Minhal – the Israeli land authority. Similarly the lean-to next to the church, where people take shifts sleeping over to have a more permanent presence here, has been standing for four years, despite being demolished and rebuilt three times before. Since 1972, when the Israeli authorities permitted it, some Iqritis have been able to make one final return to the village – to the cemetery. For the living, however, the struggle to return continues. After the mass, Nabil makes the long drive back to Haifa and as we say farewells he talks about this poem by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet:
Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.
(From Under Siege)
Zochrot is an Israeli organisation that raises awareness of the Nakba. Find out more about Iqrit and villages like it on their website.