Independence Day is not a holiday for all of Israel’s citizens. The most important event in the history of the Jewish people, by dint of which it gained an independent, sovereign and internationally recognized state, concurrently turned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were living within its borders into refugees. Most of them went into exile in neighboring Arab states, while the 160,000 or so who remained in Israel were forced to live under military rule.
From the Palestinian perspective, the establishment of the State of Israel was a “nakba,” a great national catastrophe that destroyed their world and shattered their aspirations. This deep wound shaped the troubled relationship between the Jewish state and its Arab minority, which today comprises more than 21 percent of the population.
Israeli Arab citizens, who have shared in the country’s economic growth and in some cases even serve in its army, still consider themselves an inseparable part of the Palestinian nation and its heritage, including the suffering it endured and continues to endure. Many of them have relatives who became refugees living in Arab states or the occupied territories, and a few became internally displaced people within Israel. Prominent among the latter are the internally displaced people from the villages of Iqrit and Kafr Bir’im. About 500 residents of Iqrit and about 700 residents of Bir’im were ordered to leave their homes during the War of Independence, with the promise that they would be able to return soon, when the security situation allowed it.
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That promise was never kept. In July 1951, the High Court of Justice ordered the Israeli government to allow the residents of Iqrit to return, but the ruling was ignored. In December 1995, a ministerial committee headed by Justice Minister David Libai recommended restoring to the Iqrit and Bir’im villagers some 300 acres of land that once belonged to them. That recommendation was also ignored. Successive governments have reiterated the claim that, despite the promises made during the war, allowing the former residents to return to their villages would constitute a precedent that could be interpreted as Israeli recognition of the right of return for all Palestinian refugees.
This claim is unfounded. Israel has a historic debt to the residents of the two villages. It must correct the injustice and make good on its promise. After 74 years as an independent state, one of the strongest in the world, which calls its army the most moral in the world, Israel must reach out to the internally displaced people of Iqrit and Bir’im – not just as a goodwill gesture but as a repayment of a moral debt. A step like this will not compromise the security of the state and won’t erase the memory of the Nakba, but it will have important symbolic value by proving that Israel is capable of examining its past and of building a new partnership with its Arab citizens.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.