Work has begun on connecting the last surviving building in the evacuated Arab village of Iqrit to the electricity grid, following a long-running legal battle between the descendents of the village and the government.
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Last July, the High Court of Justice ruled that the church in Iqrit be hooked up to the power grid, after three years of hearings and a dispute stretching back decades. The Arab-Christian residents were removed from their homes in the northern Galilee villages of Iqrit and Biram in November 1948, during the War of Independence, and never allowed to return.
Initially, they were told they would be allowed to return within 15 days of the evacuation, once the security situation stabilized, but this never happened. Despite an original High Court decision allowing their return in 1951, the houses in the villages were blown up by the Israel Defense Forces in 1953 and the land transferred to the Israel Land Authority. Since then, some of the land has been used by the IDF and neighboring settlements.
Iqrit Community Association chairman Nemi Ashkar said that after this year’s High Court decision, a “long and trying journey with the authorities” began. In order to connect the church to the power grid, the former residents needed permits from the Antiquities Authority, the Land Authority, the Interior Ministry and Bezeq phone company, he said.
The former residents of Iqrit and Biram, and their descendents, have held religious ceremonies and social events in the village churches for decades. The churches are the only structures left – except for the well-tended nearby cemeteries.
The former residents hope to make use of the power grid to allow families to return, said Ashkar. They plan on celebrating Christmas in the Iqrit church on December 25, even if the electricity is not yet working.
In recent years, the second and third generations of the descendants of the original villagers have shown raised awareness about the villages, and a group of young people has even built an unauthorized outpost among the ruins. A few of the activities have resulted in confrontations with representatives of the Land Authority.
In 1995, the cabinet adopted the recommendations of a ministerial committee headed by then-Justice Minister David Libai, which recommended that Iqrit’s residents be allowed to return to tend their fields. A committee of directors-general began working on the plans to allow the villagers to return – without setting a precedent for Palestinian refugees – but then the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was murdered. The government changed and the villagers remained refugees. They mourn Rabin’s assassination to this day.
Since then, the disagreements between the villagers and the government have centered around the conditions for their return and the lands that would be recognized as belonging to the two villages. In recent years, former residents and their descendents have submitted a detailed master plan for the villages. They have been in contact with the Prime Minister’s Office on the matter, but no decision has been made or agreement reached that would form a basis for ending the affair.
The Israel Electric Corporation said it is “acting to advance the work to connect the church to electricity.”
Jack Khoury contributed to this report.