International Herald Tribune – 9 October 2002
Biram’s cemetery, nestling amid apple and olive trees in the rolling blue hills of the Upper Galilee in northern Israel, is carefully tended each day by Abrahim Iassa, 68, even though the village it once served no longer exists.
The 1,000 Christian inhabitants of Biram were asked to leave their homes by the Israeli army in October 1948 – a few months after the establishment of the Jewish state – while soldiers cleared the area of enemy forces. Today, 54 years later, they are still waiting for permission to return.
Iassa is increasingly pessimistic about his chances. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “I think there is only one way they will let me back to my village – and that is in a coffin.”
A year ago, after decades of promises from Israeli leaders that the villagers would be allowed to return, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon closed the door on their hopes. He said the claims of Biram and Ikrit, another Christian village in the same situation, had to be rejected on security grounds and because they would set a precedent for the right of return.
He was assumed to be referring to the fact that both villages are close to the border with Lebanon and that the fate of nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war now living in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria has yet to be decided. The fear of Israeli politicians is that these Palestinians will claim a right to return to 400 destroyed villages in what is now Israel.
But unlike these refugees, the villagers of Biram and Ikrit live inside the Jewish state and hold Israeli citizenship. Today the total number of internally displaced Palestinians is estimated at 250,000, a quarter of Israel’s Arab population.
What distinguishes the cases of Biram and Ikrit from other destroyed Palestinian villages, however, is that the Israeli state admits both that the inhabitants never resisted the advancing soldiers and that they were given an explicit promise by the army that they would be allowed to return.
After the evacuation, many of Biram’s inhabitants moved a short distance away to the village of Jish waiting for the all-clear from the army. When they heard nothing, they turned to the courts and began the long legal battle that continues to this day.
The High Court backed them in 1951, ordering that they be restored to their homes. But before the order could be enforced, the area was sealed off as a military secure zone. Days later, says Toomi Magzal, 74, the villagers watched from Jish as their homes were blown up by the army.
Today all that is left standing are the church and the cemetery: the latter was returned to them in 1967. The ruins of their homes were long ago incorporated into a national park. Park signs in English and Hebrew tell of the ancient Jewish community of Baram but make no mention that an Arab village ever existed here.
The cases of Biram and Ikrit are likely to be a thorn in the Israeli authorities’ side for some time to come, however. The government has been ordered to pay compensation to the villagers, although most of the villagers insist they want their land back, not money.
There is also mounting international pressure to right the historical injustice. But the government is unlikely to give in. As one official told the daily Ha’aretz newspaper this year: “No government could ever give land back to Arabs. That is a sad, but real, political truth.”
Magzal says that although the villagers have scattered as far away as Nazareth, Haifa and Jerusalem, they and their descendants have not forgotten their connection to Biram.
Living in neighboring Jish, he says, has been particularly difficult. “I still feel like a refugee all these years later. Each day I see my village but cannot return there.” He adds: “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?”