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The security cabinet's decision yesterday over the pending High Court petition regarding the villagers of Ikrit and Biram was partly based on the formulation that no previous government had ever promised to return the residents to their lands, and reconfirmed "as of now" a 1972 government decision not to allow them to return. Among the factors leading to yesterday's decision is the demand by 55 Arab villages in Israel to return to expropriated land and concern that the Palestinian Authority would exploit the precedent to press its own demands for a right of return for refugees.

The residents of Ikrit and Biram were uprooted from their homes in 1948, "until the security situation allows their return." In 1951, the High Court ruled that the villagers were allowed to return "as long as no emergency decree" against it has been issued. The government hastened to issue such a decree against the Ikrit evacuees, and two months later, the IDF blew up houses in that village. In 1953, it blew up the houses of Biram. Only the churches of the two villages were left standing. Two years later, the land of the two villages - 16,000 dunam in Ikrit and 12,000 dunam in Biram - were expropriated for establishing Jewish settlements.

In February 1997, the evacuees petitioned the High Court of Justice, which gave the government time to "examine the issue." In mid-1998, the court issued a temporary injunction ordering the government to report its position within 90 days. Since then, the government has received three further delays, including one due to the change of government and one because of "the situation on the northern border, the negotiations with the Palestinians and the question of Israeli Arabs."

While there has not been a formal government commitment to return the evacuees, in November 1948, David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that "as for the Christians of Biram and other villages... we will willingly consider their return only when the situation on the border is stabilized." In 1977, Menachem Begin promised to return them to their families, and in that spirit, 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 in the spirit of the Libai and Klugman recommendations which provide a step forward and a strong basis for negotiation."

Those committees recommended in 1995 and 1996 that an area of 1,200 dunam be allocated for the re-establishment of Biram and Ikrit as community settlements on the basis of long-term land leases. Family representatives rejected the proposals - another reason for the cabinet's refusal to allow the villagers to return. The government will also argue in its case to the High Court that most of the families have already reached compensation agreements, in the form of land or money, with the government.

Any decision on the issue is problematic. The court will have to deal with, among other issues, the "special" nature of this case compared with other land claims made by Israeli Arabs and the status of kibbutzim, moshavim and other farms using land in the area. Nonetheless, the evacuees of Ikrit and Biram, their children and their grandchildren have become a symbol of an injustice that requires rectification with wisdom and conciliation. The cabinet's position, based as it is on legalistic and formulaic positions, ignores the national and civic significance of symbolism in this complicated and difficult era, and by doing so, casts a shadow of moral and political lacunae on its members.