Pressured by the events in Syria and standing in line for gas masks they don’t need, what Israeli had time to notice that former residents of the Galilee village of Biram were demonstratively squatting around the old village church and ruins of their homes last week, demanding the right to return to their ancestral village?
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Sixty-five years have passed since the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Hiram cleared the Upper Galilee, in October 1948, driving the forces of the Arab Liberation Army led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji into Lebanon, and occupying the villages of Biram and Ikrit, whose villagers offered no resistance. They were asked to evacuate the villages and promised that they could return once security had been established in the area.
The villagers followed the order to evacuate, but the promise was not kept. Three years later the IDF blew up the houses in both villages, leaving only the churches standing. They still stand today, a mute reminder of a promise not kept.
Over the years, numerous appeals to the Supreme Court, government inquiry commissions, demonstrations and protests have produced no results. The promise is still broken, and justice has not been served. The inhabitants of Biram and Ikrit are still waiting.
Anyone seeking some degree of logic in the refusal of successive Israeli governments to honor the promise made will struggle to find it. Operation Hiram established security in the area. On March 29, 1949, Israel and Lebanon signed an armistice agreement and the IDF - which had penetrated into Lebanon - withdrew to the international border. For years, peace reigned in the area. But the villagers were not allowed to return.
As the years went by, the policy pursued by Israeli governments on the matter can only be described as a “march of folly.” The villagers of Biram are Maronite Christians; the villagers of Ikrit Greek Catholics. Both religious sects are considered friendly to Israel, and many of their young men volunteer for service in the IDF. That expression of loyalty is evidently not sufficient.
When the Palestine Liberation Organization set up a quasi-state in southern Lebanon in the late 1960s and carried out terrorist activities against Israel from there, it was natural that members of the Christian community in southern Lebanon saw their interests aligned with those of Israel.
In 1975, Maj. Saad Haddad, a Greek Catholic officer in the Lebanese army, took over command of military units in southern Lebanon (named the Free Lebanon Army), which coordinated its activities with the IDF. In 1984, Antoine Lahad, a Maronite general in the Lebanese army, took command of the South Lebanese Army - composed largely of Christian, but also Shia and Sunni soldiers and officers.
Until the unilateral withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon in 2000, it was (Israeli ally) the SLA which, in coordination with the IDF, secured the area north of Biram and Ikrit. There were no security concerns that might preclude the return of the villagers to their homes. Nevertheless, they did not receive permission from the Israeli government to return.
It was the unilateral withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon, without adequate coordination with the SLA, which added the shame of betrayal of an ally - who had fought alongside the soldiers of the IDF for years - to the broken promise to the villagers of Biram and Ikrit.
The officers and soldiers of the SLA, many of them Maronites and Greek Catholics, were abandoned to their fate. Some succeeded in escaping to Israel, leaving their property and sometimes even their families behind. Israel’s subsequent shabby treatment of these fighters, who tied their fate to Israel, is a shameful episode in itself.
How to explain this treatment of loyal allies by the State of Israel? Is this a deliberate policy of the Israeli government toward its Christian friends? Is this likely to encourage others to tie their fate to Israel? The answer to these questions will be found in the hills of Galilee at the sites of Biram and Ikrit. The villagers, and many of Israel’s citizens with them, await the answer.