Al-Ahram Weekly – 18 October 2001
For good reason 67-year-old cemetery keeper Abrahim Iassa tends the graves on a hillside overlooking the village of Biram with an unusual degree of dedication.
“At the moment,” he says, “there is only one way I will be allowed to return to my village — in a coffin. I’m an old man but Israel thinks I am a security threat as long as I’m alive.”
He is not alone. The 1,000 original inhabitants of Biram, located in the Upper Galilee, have been waging a 53-year battle with successive Israeli governments to be allowed to return to the land from which they were evacuated during the 1948 war. Today the church is the one building still standing, all 150 homes having been razed during Israel’s bombing of the village in 1953. The cemetery, at least, was returned to them in 1967.
Last week, five decades after an Israeli court ruled in 1951 that Biram’s lands should be returned, Ariel Sharon’s government rejected the villagers’ case. In doing so, he reneged on promises made to the Maronites of Biram and the 600 Catholics of another Upper Galilee village, Ikrit, by every prime minister since Menachem Begin in 1977.
The Sharon government said the villagers could not be allowed back “for security reasons and especially because it would be a precedent for the right of return of other displaced persons.” These were references to the fact that Biram and Ikrit are only a few kilometres from the border with Lebanon and that previous peace negotiations have never agreed on the fate of nearly 4 million Palestinians living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza.
Although these are the excuses Israel has used for the past 53 years to delay a decision to let the villagers return, Iassa finds them hard to stomach. After being evacuated from Biram, he and many others moved a short distance away to the neighbouring village of Jish, where they eventually built new homes. He cannot see how they are less of a security threat where they are now, or how their moving the four kilometres back to Biram would risk provoking a flood of refugees from neighbouring Arab states. Unlike the refugees, the great majority of the villagers and their descendants are Israeli citizens.
Biram and Ikrit have become bywords for Israel’s historical injustices towards its one million-strong Arab minority. The country’s continuing failure to rectify its past mistakes has brought it international condemnation. When Pope John Paul II visited the Galilee for the millennium celebrations in March last year, he specifically raised the villagers’ plight with then Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
During the 1948 war some 800,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes and crossed into neighbouring Arab states. Over the past 20 years increasing evidence has emerged that massacres of men from selected areas were used to terrify the rest of the population into leaving.
Toomi Magzal was 20 in October 1948 when the Israeli army arrived in Biram. He said: “We knew they were coming because other fleeing villagers had warned us.
We’d heard frightening stories but we wanted to stay in Biram and decided to take the risk. We hung out white flags to show that we were not going to resist.”
In both Biram and Ikrit, the Jewish commanding officers evacuated the villages for the “safety” of the inhabitants, telling them they could return in two weeks. But the army continued occupying the areas, declaring Ikrit a closed security zone in 1949 and Biram one in 1951. The Treasury Ministry finally confiscated Biram’s 12,000 dunums (3,000 acres) of farming land in 1953 on the grounds that it was abandoned and uncultivated. A portion of the land was subsequently given to three kibbutzim (Jewish farm collectives).
Biram and Ikrit are the most high-profile examples of some 60 Arab villages that were either destroyed or their lands confiscated and handed to Jewish communities in the war that created Israel. In the Orwellian language of the state, the displaced villagers are known as “present absentees”: present in Israel but absent from their land. Today their numbers have grown to 250,000, one in five of Israel’s Arab population.
Biram and Ikrit’s inhabitants, however, have refused to accept the label, arguing in the courts that they never offered resistance to the army, that they were evacuated not expelled and that they were given official promises they would be allowed to return. One such promise came as early as 1949 when then Prime Minister David Ben- Gurion issued a statement saying: “The government has no intention to deprive the residents of Biram of their land and their means of living.”
Magzal, 73, who also lives in Jish, said: “I still feel like a refugee all these years later. It’s made all the more painful because each day I see my village but cannot return there. They have taken away my dignity. How can Israel say our rights are not important because they are 50 years old when they claim rights to this land from 2,000 years ago?”
Although some Biram villagers were sent as far away as Nazareth, Haifa, Acre and Jerusalem, Magzal said: “We and our children have never lost our connection to this village. We always come back for family events: weddings, baptisms and funerals.”
To resolve the cases of Biram and Ikrit, Yitzhak Rabin’s government set up the Libai committee in 1993. It recommended leasing 600 dunums (150 acres) , or 3 per cent of the land, to the original inhabitants and two of their offspring.
In return the families had to sign a waiver to their claims. The Biram villagers rejected the offer on the grounds that each family of three households would have little more than half a dunum of land and that even this would still belong to the state.
Ikrit and Biram stepped up their campaign in 1997 by again approaching the High Court. The government had delayed responding on seven separate occasions, until last week’s cabinet statement. The rejection of Ikrit and Biram’s cases will be considered by the court next month, but no one is expecting the judges to take on the government.
Nowadays Biram is the gateway to a national park. Last week, unusually, there were Israeli soldiers stationed close to the ruins. Magzal said: “Why are they suddenly here? This is Sharon trying to give the court a pretext for accepting his security arguments.” Pointing to the gently rolling hills of apple and olive trees, he added: “Where is the danger here?”
The government decision has been criticised by Minister for Arab Affairs Salah Tarif. “I hope the government reverses its decision and decides on returning the people of Ikrit and Biram, which by any criteria would be the proper, just and moral thing to do.”
Yossi Beilin, who as justice minister in the Barak government hinted that the villagers would be allowed to return, said: “The case of residents in Ikrit and Biram was unusual because they received an explicit promise that they could return.” He rejected the Sharon government’s argument that it would set a precedent for the right of return.