Silver Lining

Food for thought

We shall return: The story of Iqrit

The Church of Our Lady in Iqrit.

by Fida Jiryis, source

‘I don’t want to open all my wounds…,’ says Maher Daoud, a descendent of Iqrit refugees, as we drive to the site where the village of his parents once stood. I wince and apologize, aware of how difficult the subject must be for him.

Iqrit is one of the 350 or so Palestinian villages that were completely destroyed and ethnically cleansed in 1948, its residents barred from returning but turned, overnight, into internal refugees in their own country.

Maher, 43, is married to my cousin, Njoud, and they live in Mi’ilya, a village in the Galilee. They regularly drive up to Iqrit, whose church is all that remains today, to partake in religious celebrations at Christmas and Easter and to visit dead relatives in Iqrit’s cemetery. The occasion of our visit now is sombre: Maher’s mother passed away two years ago, and we are here to visit her grave on the occasion of Good Friday, as is the custom among Palestinian Christians.

The drive to Iqrit takes a mere twenty minutes from my village, Fassouta. Both are in the Galilee: the north of historical Palestine, a few kilometres from the Lebanese border. During Israel’s “War of Independence” in 1948, or the Nakba (Catastrophe) as Palestinians refer to it, the residents of Iqrit and Biram, another nearby village, were uprooted from their homes on “security grounds,” presumably for Israel to protect its northern border. The residents of Iqrit were bussed to Rama village, twenty kilometers south in the Galilee, and told it would be for a few weeks, until the security situation was calm and they could return. But they never did.

On Christmas Eve, 1950, the Israeli army blew up all the houses of Iqrit, in a timely “Christmas gift” to its expelled Christian residents. My father, a boy of 12 at the time, saw the smoke rising above the village in the distance, and, in panic and haste, told a man named Tu’meh from Iqrit, who had taken refuge in Fassouta. Tu’meh’s eyes filled with tears.

In 1951, the Israeli High Court ruled that the villagers be allowed to return “as long as no emergency decree” existed against the village. With cold predictability, the government was quick to issue such a decree against the Iqrit evacuees. In 1953, it blew up the houses of Biram, too, leaving only the churches of the two villages standing. Two years later, the theft was completed: the land of the two villages – 16,000 dunams (4,000 acres) in Iqrit and 12,000 dunams (3000 acres) in Biram – was expropriated for establishing Jewish settlements, which are there today: Even Menahem, Shlomi, and Shtula.

I’d read about this before; Israel coldly and ruthlessly destroyed about 350 Palestinian villages and turned close to 700,000 Palestinians into homeless refugees during the Nakba. I had visited Suhmata, another such village, already, so I was prepared for what I expected to see.

Nothing stopped the flood of goose bumps, though, when my cousin whispered: “Here it is. The village starts here.”

“The village” that she was referring to “started” as a small pile of rubble by the roadside. Maher was quick to point to the church atop a hill in the distance. “That’s Iqrit,” he said.

I experienced the same sickening disbelief I’d felt when an old relative had pointed to a tree-covered hill and told me: “Here it is. This is Suhmata.”

In fact, it is completely surreal: all you see are shrubs and trees, thick greenery as is characteristic of the wilderness of Galilee. The small piles of rubble dotted periodically around are the only small reason to believe that those speaking to you are not deranged or delusional.

As we climb up the winding road in Maher’s car, I notice piles of fresh rubble by the side. He says: “We put asphalt on the road a few years ago, just to be able to drive up to the cemetery because the old people can’t walk up this far. But the Jewish settlers came and tore up the road. You can see the piles every few meters.” Such is the refusal and phobia of Israel that Palestinians may exercise their right of return to their stolen homes: even a simple road to get to a cemetery is torn apart, lest it become a precedent

We reach the cemetery and walk in with flowers and candles to pay our respects. I notice a large stone at the entrance with these words on it: “We remember and will not forget – This stone was erected in memory of our fathers and mothers who staged a sit-in in Iqrit Church, in the hope of returning alive, as the highest judicial authority in the country deemed, to rebuild what the hands of decision makers have destroyed. But the policy of rights abuses and land confiscation did not allow them to do so, and they died refugees in their own land.”

I start to read the names that follow… Elias Yousef Daoud, Atallah Mousa Atallah, Elias Diab Sbeit, Najib Jiryis Khayyat, and on it goes… Eighteen names of people who tried desperately to undo the cruel fate that they had been dealt by Israel and return to their homes, but whose efforts were in vain, until they could only return as dead to be buried in their village.

In fact, such was not even the case: from the time Iqrit was ethnically cleansed in 1948 until 1972, its scattered residents were not even allowed to bury their dead in the village. This posed a serious problem, for they had to rely on the kindness of the people of Rama to give them a space in its cemetery. Suddenly, a death was not only cause for mourning but for logistical worry as well. In a sad story that Maher told me, a group of young men once decided to break the rule and took the body of one of their dead for burial at night in Iqrit. Israeli soldiers heard of the matter and followed them, then forced them to dig the ground again, retrieve the coffin and take it to be buried elsewhere.

Life for the living wasn’t much easier. The people of Iqrit settled in Rama in harsh conditions. With the sudden influx of refugees, daily living was crowded and difficult, and jobs were scarce. The pain of having just lost, overnight, everything that they owned was compounded by this new and harsh reality. Maher, for example, was the grandson of the mukhtar, or head of the village, of Iqrit. His grandfather was very well off, owned a shop and an olive oil press, and traded in tobacco. The shock of losing all that he owned – his home, lands, and businesses – and being turned into a homeless, penniless refugee overnight was overwhelming. Maher’s father lived in denial. “For years, all the time that I was growing up, my father refused to paint the house or do any badly needed renovation to it. Why? Because he feared that in doing so, he would be seen as acclimatising to his new home, having forgotten Iqrit or his hope of returning.”

The people of Iqrit proved themselves in Rama, taking menial work and enduring difficult conditions to support their families. Eventually, the next generations moved to Haifa and elsewhere in search of work.

Do they feel a connection to Rama, now, as their surrogate home? I pose the question to Maher and he says, “Sure, I was born in Rama and grew up there, I have memories there and feel some belonging. But I’m not from Rama. I’m from Iqrit.” He tells me that the people of Rama also add to this feeling; when he asked for directions to someone’s house, for example, the man in the street responded with: “Oh! The man from Iqrit…” before giving him directions. This was despite the man in question having lived in Rama for more than sixty years.

Maher was sorely reminded of this misfit when he decided to build a house for himself and his family. His father had no land in Rama. When Maher got married, he rented a flat in Kfar Veradim, a Jewish locale near the Palestinian village of Tarshiha where he works, and lived there for a number of years. Then, with rent becoming too high for him, he moved to Mi’ilya, another nearby Arab village, where he bought land to buy a house. He then faced a problem that he had never thought of: some residents of Mi’ilya did not want him. He was labelled a stranger, and an uproar ensued on his owning land in the village, including threats and slander against him. Maher comments bitterly: “If I were still in Iqrit, my grandfather’s land would have been more than enough. I would not have needed to beg anyone for a corner to live in with my family!”

“Every day, I feel that I’m a living testimony to the injustice that was done to us,” he continues. I ask him how he reconciles, internally, living in Israel, alongside the people who took away his village and committed this injustice. “It’s a huge contradiction,” he says painfully. “They are the ones who did this to me, to us, yet they are my customers in my hummus shop; I need them to survive.” He finds it emotionally difficult to separate work from the personal, though. Sometimes, he enters into political discussions with Jewish customers, but is frustrated because he can’t say everything he wants. He cites an incident that took place when he was living in Kefar Veradim. One of his neighbours had come to his shop to buy food and inquired, “So, what’s it like living in our place?” Maher quickly looked at her and replied, “Actually, you’re the ones living in my place. You’re the guests in this country, and unwanted ones at that.” The customer did not return.

The people of Iqrit are remarkably tight-knit and steadfast in their resolution to return to their village. Six decades after they were ousted from their homes and lands, they still pray in their church, bury their dead in Iqrit, and hold summer camps there annually for their children, to teach them about their village. A famous poet from Iqrit, Aouni Sbeit, was once quoted telling a reporter, during a demonstration of the people of Iqrit in front of the Israeli prime minister’s office: “If you put your ear to the belly of a pregnant woman from Iqrit, you will hear the baby saying that we shall return!”

Powerful words, but whether they will ever come true for these internal refugees is anyone’s guess. Despite an on-going legal battle, Israel will not allow them to return, lest it set a precedent for the return of other Palestinian refugees to their homes. Despite the fact that, in 1998, then-justice minister Tzachi Hanegbi recommended to the Netanyahu government that “no obstacles should be placed in the way of the return of the evacuees,” the final settlement offered to them in 1995 and 1996 was that Iqrit and Biram be re-established as community settlements on the basis of long-term land leases. In other words, the residents would have to “rent” their own lands from the state. Not surprisingly, they refused. The case has since been at a stalemate. Maher remarks bitterly: “How many articles have been written about Iqrit… How much material circulated… And we still can’t go home.”

The story of Iqrit, though, illustrates the power of home and belonging. No one, not even Israel, can take that away. Palestinians have been connected to this land for generations; it’s not a connection that they can sever or replace. They know no other home and ask only for their basic human right: to return to this home that they were so cruelly ousted from. “My father has lived a temporary existence for sixty-four years,” Maher says. “Because, for sixty-four years, he’s been sitting on his suitcase, waiting to go home.”

- Fida Jiryis is a Palestinian writer from the Arab village of Fassuta in the Galilee.

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