Alone with his thoughts, he stands in this very simple church, stroking its walls, new wooden chairs and ancient paintings. Prof. Imad Kassis comes here often. Last Friday, he was back again, together with dozens of people from the village of Ikrit and their descendants, to mark the 65th anniversary of their expulsion.
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Kassis, an Israeli, teaches pediatric medicine at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He was born 10 years after the expulsion, yet he still comes here, time after time. He doesn’t forget, he doesn’t forgive and he especially doesn’t give up. He is convinced that the former residents and their descendants will be back someday in their ancient Catholic village, situated high in the mountains of the Upper Galilee, across from the heights of Lebanon.
There aren’t many injustices like this expulsion, and there aren’t many idiocies like Israel’s refusal to allow the villagers to return home. They didn’t fight in 1948, they were promised they’d be allowed to return within a few days and their displaced persons are all Israeli citizens. After dozens of discussions in court and innumerable debates in ministerial and director general-level committees that have come so close to approving their return − each time, at the last minute, one pretext or another prevents it from happening.
Now, third-generation refugees − 15 young people − have established an outpost in the village church; they have been living here, under the radar, for more than a year. The state does actually allow the villagers to bury their dead in the ancient, well-tended cemetery on the mountainside nearby: It and the church are the only sites still standing, after 88 houses in the village were blown up in 1953, five years after Israel’s War of Independence.
Just before the moshav of Shomera, a dirt path goes up to the mountain that was once a village; only ruins remain scattered on the sides from the access road people once tried to pave to Ikrit. The view is breathtaking, the silence absolute. A Madonna looks out over the vista from the roof of the stone church. The mountainside is littered with rocks from which homes were once built. A cobblestone road to the village is intact in places, as are some of the orchards.
Nami Ashkar, who works in high-tech in Tel Aviv, lives in the village of Yasif, south of Ikrit. He belongs to the second generation of the expulsion. His business card bears the only photograph left of the village from before its destruction, and a sentence in English: “We will be back.” He serves as the chairman of the Ikrit community association , and together we climb the mountain slope among the ruins. A rusty olive press serves as a monument.
Meilad Ashkar, 82, reminisces. They numbered 490, the people uprooted from Ikrit. Ashkar, a farmer who was born on Christmas, had put his cows out to pasture when the expulsion order came. The residents were loaded onto army trucks and brought to the village of Rama. They left everything behind, certain they could trust the promise made by the army and residents of neighboring Kibbutz Eilon − that they would be allowed back within two weeks. They left some 60 people behind to guard the village until their return.
Last week, 65 years after that day − November 8, 1948 − they returned to the village, as they do every year, for the symbolic planting of olive trees, which are then usually yanked out of the ground a few days later by the Israel Lands Administration.
When IDF troops entered the village at the end of October 1948, the residents gathered in the church and hoisted a white flag on its roof. From the day of expulsion until the end of martial law for Israel’s Arab citizens in 1966, they were not permitted to visit Ikrit, except for one day a year: Israel’s Day of Independence. The first discussion of their case in the High Court of Justice took place in 1951. The court issued an injunction instructing the state to allow the villagers’ return, but the injunction was not honored. Two years later, the Israeli army fired its cannons on the houses, reducing them to rubble.
42 years later, a ministerial committee headed by then-Justice Minister David Libai recommended that Ikrit’s residents be allowed to return to tend their fields. A committee of directors-general began working on the plans, but then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. The government changed and the villagers remained refugees. They mourn Rabin’s assassination to this day.
“We won’t forget,” reads one of the graffiti on the wall of the church that 15 young descendants now call home. The stone room is neat and holds a computer, a narghile and a bookcase. The natural vegetation now growing on the mountain covers what used to be tobacco fields. The old people can still remember the tobacco leaves they spread out on their roofs to dry.
The village land, covering some 2,400 hectares (about 6,000 acres), was confiscated and classified as state property. The Ashkar family’s land became a military base.
In the cemetery, Robert Ayub lights a fire and drops some amber pellets into it. The scent wafts over the grave of his grandmother, Rasiba, whose picture sits on the black marble headstone.
The first burial took place here in 1837; the last, just two weeks ago. “Please respect the sanctity of this place,” reads a plaque at the entrance. The state even allocates a regular budget to the cemetery. But when the request was made to hook the church up to the electric grid, the state objected, saying, “Christians do not pray at night.”
Mass is held irregularly, once a month. The Christmas Mass is especially well attended and sad. This is a church with memories, mattresses rolled up in a corner and a protest placard perched against a wall, reading: “We’re on the map, and on the map we’ll stay.”
Inside the church, Prof. Kassis lowers his voice. “My parents talked a lot about this place, but they didn’t speak much about the moment they were plucked out of here. I honored their silence. They didn’t hope to come back, they knew they’d be back,” he declares. “There was no room for doubt or debate. We, too, have no doubt we’ll be back. I feel like the second generation ... I was born a decade later, but it’s part of my life experience. My identity was forged here. If I have only a single room and a bathroom, I’m moving back. It’s important to me not to feel as if I’m cut off from my land. This is also transmitted to my children. They know where they came from and where they’re going.
“When people ask me my address, I only given them a post office box. It’s 65 years later, and I have to explain why I have only a post office box and how it is that my address is elsewhere.”
Why aren’t you allowed back?
“I think there’s something quite profound involved here. Officially, they say there are problems with ‘setting a precedent.’ But that can’t be the real reason, because others will want to go back whether we return or not. I think that the state, the society and the conscience of Israel have a hard time changing a worldview they created regarding the core of what it means to be Israeli. The government has trouble admitting that other people, who had a unique culture which they introduced in this land hundreds of years earlier, were here, just like the Jews. They’re unwilling to accept that other people may have the same sense of holiness about this place.
“The problem isn’t the specific 50 hectares. We take up room in Israel no matter where we are. But the moment we come back to this spot, the state has to accept a very real entity with a unique fabric and way of life − and it doesn’t want to do that. Israelis have enclosed themselves inside this bubble; they’re choking inside of it, but are afraid to come out. It takes courage to say, ‘Enough. We’re strong enough.’
“There was a special community here with a special connection to the natural environment. It had a church, and then it was dispersed. They [the Israelis] wrecked spiritual property that cannot be reconstructed anywhere else. They plucked it out. We have a community we can feel only here. I pray in a church in Haifa, but I feel like a stranger there. I feel like a stranger everywhere. When I meet the people here, they look different than they do anywhere else. I’m willing to bet that most of our people smile less than others, and that this sadness is passed on from one generation to the next.