Opinion |

The Right of Return for the Palestinian Villages of Ikrit and Biram

Zehava Galon
Remnants from the Palestinian village of Biram.
Remnants from the Palestinian village of Biram.Credit: Oren Ziv
Zehava Galon

Let me make it clear from the start: In this article there will be no reference to the coalition quarrels and the question of who was insulted by whom, why and when in the affair of Ikrit and Biram.

I want to exploit the opportunity, after MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi put the story of the never-ending injustice to the people of Ikrit and Biram back on the agenda, to discuss what has been repressed; I want to discuss the cynical, despicable behavior of the extreme right, from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich, who were alarmed when they heard the request to return the uprooted population and claimed that this was an implementation of “the right of return.”

In 2000, I brought up for a vote in the Knesset a draft bill to return residents to Ikrit and Biram, two Christian villages near the Lebanese border. The villages were captured by the Israel Defense Forces without a battle at the end of 1948; a week later their residents were told to evacuate for two weeks, “until there are no security grounds” preventing their return, according to the IDF.

They have not returned since. In July 1951 the High Court of Justice ruled that the residents – now already Israeli citizens – should be returned to their homes. The government did not obey the order, but the residents – big mistake! – relied on the promise that the order would be carried out. In November 1951 they received temporary restraining orders barring them from the villages due to “a security need.” They petitioned the High Court, but the court preferred to believe the army.

Two years later, the government nationalized the areas of the villages, with a sickening claim that nobody had lived in them for two years. In September 1953 the IDF blew up the houses in Biram, and shortly afterward a nature reserve was established at the site; the rest of the land was transferred to Jewish communities in the region.

Still believing in the Israeli authorities, the residents and their heirs turned to the authorities demanding that they be returned to their villages, or at the least be provided with an alternative place to live. The government ignored the distress of the Israeli citizens, which was caused by the actions of the Israeli authorities. The residents turned repeatedly to the High Court, the last time in 1997, when Justice Dalia Dorner ruled that there really are no security grounds for preventing their entry to the site, and the orders for the closed military area were rescinded. But because the government did not allocate land to them, they were unable to return.

The Libai Committee, which was established in 1995 under the government of Yitzhak Rabin and chaired by former Minister David Libai, decided to return the uprooted villagers to some 1,200 dunams (300 acres) of land near the village, and then-Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi adopted this position in 1998. The following governments, however, have refrained from implementing the committee’s recommendation.

During a Knesset discussion I mentioned that both the right and the left had supported returning the residents to their homes. The administration of Gahal, the Herut-Liberal bloc, made such a decision in 1972, and honorable right-wingers supported it: In 2013 former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Arens published an article in Haaretz calling to return them to their homes, while criticizing Israel’s conduct in the affair.

The attempt to undermine this demand with the claim that it constitutes an implementation of “the right of return” is utter nonsense. These people never left Israeli territory, and they are supported by the 1951 High Court ruling, which has been repeatedly violated. They are the victims of lies and deceit on the part of the IDF and the government, and their case proves once again that Israeli citizenship doesn’t carry much weight if you aren’t Jewish.

The injustice to the residents of Ikrit and Biram must be repaired, because if not, this disgrace will continue to follow us, making it clear to everyone that a High Court ruling is subject to the approval of a military commander.

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