Friday, November 17, 2017

Iqrit is exercising the Right to Return

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By Ruairi Henchy - February 20, 2015
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Section: [Main News] [In Pictures]
Tags: [Palestinian citizens of Israel]

Photos by Ruairi Henchy.

Iqrit is a Palestinian village on the border with Lebanon in the Western Galilee that was ethnically cleansed in the 1948 war that led to the creation of present day Israel. In 1948, the hilltop village had a population of 616 Palestinian Greek Melkite Catholics. Today, their descendants are mostly scattered around northern Israel, but for the last two and a half years, they have been fighting to return to their village.

The 1948 war, known to Palestinians as the 'Nakba’ (Arabic for Catastrophe), saw the expulsion of approximately 90% of the indigenous Palestinian population of present day Israel, roughly 750,000 people. This process of ethnic cleansing also included the obliteration of some 400 Palestinian towns and villages. The refugees all have the legal right to return under United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.

Iqrit was initially spared demolition, however, and in 1951, the Israeli courts even ruled that the inhabitants could return to their homes. Perhaps fearing that this would set a dangerous precedent for other Palestinian refugees, the Israeli government quickly moved to declare the area a closed military zone. Then, on Christmas Eve of 1951, all of Iqrit’s structures, with the exception of the Church, were demolished with landmines and explosives set off by the Israeli military.

Ever since, Iqrit’s residents and their descendants have been relentless in their efforts to return home. In 1971 they began burying their dead in the village graveyard once again, and commenced a sit in protest in 1972. Their continued agitation eventually led to the establishment of an Israeli government ministerial commission, which ruled in 1995 that the displaced residents of Iqrit should be allowed to return under certain conditions. 

None of these recommendations were ever implemented, however, so in 2013 the people of Iqrit got together and decided to take action. Initially, four youth reoccupied a small building adjoining the church. But now, two and a half years later, around 15 young people whose families are from Iqrit take shifts staying in the village, with at least two of them staying over every night.

Yousef Khayat, whose family hails from Iqrit, grew up in Tarsheeha about 20 minutes away, and works as a nurse in Haifa. For him, re-occupying their village is not only self-serving, it is “for all the refugees who want to return home.” He points to the controversial Israeli Nakba Law passed in 2011, which criminalized commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba. “This action helps to pass on the story of our people because we aren’t allowed to speak about it anymore,” he said.

He explains that it has been a difficult process, with constant police harassment and legal obstacles. Just last month they had a small victory, however, when the Israeli courts decided to uphold their right to reconnect electricity and water to the village, despite an objection from Minhal Mekarkiai Israel (the Israel Land Authority). However, the community has been doing more than just re-establishing their physical presence. 

Last year, one of the villagers married his wife in the Church, the first wedding to be held in Iqrit since the 1970’s. Another wedding has since followed and Yousef explains that the parishioners gather for mass on the first Saturday of every month as well as at Christmas, Easter and other holidays, with a Greek Melkite priest coming to Iqrit from nearby Nazareth to lead the service.

“We are returning with or without permission, we already have returned,” beams Yousef when asked about the next step for the residents of Iqrith. 

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