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Keen to avoid setting a precedent that could lead to thousands of requests by displaced Arabs to return to their former homes, the security cabinet decided Wednesday to re-ratify a government decision - originally approved in 1972 - to keep pre-1948 Biram and Ikrit residents from returning to the sites of their villages in the Galilee.

The decision will form the basis of the position that state prosecutors are to take in future Supreme Court deliberations on the matter.

In 1948 Israeli authorities ordered the residents of the villages of Biram and Ikrit to leave their villages, telling them that they would be able to return once the security situation stabilized. They have not been allowed to return since then.

At the root of the cabinet's recommendation against the return of the village residents lies the fear of setting a precedent of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to the villages. This apprehension against setting a precedent is based on the demands of Palestinians for the right of return, security problems on Israel's borders following the withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon, and the objection of residents of Jewish settlements to the return of the displaced persons.

A committee representing the displaced residents of the villages submitted a petition to the court in 1997 requesting to be allowed to return to their villages. Since then the state has seven times requested that a deliberation on the petition be postponed for various reasons.

Minister without Portfolio Salah Tarif expressed sadness over the cabinet decision. He referred to the decision as a "huge miss," and expressed hope that the government would soon reverse the decision. According to Tarif, the return of the displaced persons to their villages would be the correct and moral choice, whereas in making its decision, the government missed an opportunity to improve relations with the Arab sector.

In response to the decision, Na'ameh Aksher, from the displaced persons committee said that the motives for the decision were not security related, but rather political. Aksher said that there are two court decisions allowing the displaced persons to return to their villages and obligating the state to assist in doing so, but that the state has avoided carrying out these decisions on grounds of security claims.

According to Aksher, the main claims against the return of the villagers - the desire to prevent a precedent for the return of refugees - is groundless, because Ikrit is a unique case. Aksher noted that Ikrit is the only village among those destroyed in 1948 that has been lived in continually. Prayers in the village church have continued and displaced persons from the village who have died have been buried in the local cemetery.