Melkite villagers long to return to their ancestral land in Israel

The only building left standing atop the hill where the Melkite village of Iqrit once stood is the Church of Our Lady Mary, its light blue dome visible from the bottom.

“This is the place where I was meant to grow up,” said Ghassan Toume, 24, an information systems and statistics student at Haifa University. He had just spent the night at the destroyed village as part of a group of some 15 young men who have been living here in shifts for almost a year, reclaiming their grandparents’ village, near the border with Lebanon. He points toward the hillside where the remnants of a stone wall can be made out under the tumble of overgrown weeds. “These are the buildings and the church, which is all we have left,” he said.

During the winter months, the young men slept inside the church, where the Iqrit Community Association arranged electricity for them, brought in water and also built a basic bathroom and shower. Inside a shack, the young men had a small refrigerator, an oven, tables and chairs, as well as a television set and a DVD player.

Decades-long dispute

A copy of an archive photo of the village of Iqrit, before Israel destroyed the village in December 1951. Photo by Debbie Hill

The village, which in 1948 was home to 490 residents, consisted of 70 homes, a private elementary school run by the Greek Catholic Church and groves of fruit trees and towering oaks, several springs and agricultural fields, all built around the church, which stands in the middle of the hilltop.

On Oct. 31, 1948, as part of an operation aimed at securing the northern borders of the nascent Jewish state, the army entered the village in full cooperation with the village elders. After a week, the villagers obeyed the army’s request to leave for security reasons, with the assurances that they would be allowed to return in two weeks. They took with them only the basic necessities, leaving behind 50 men — including the village priest — to guard the village. Six months later, the village was declared a closed military zone. The men were removed from the area and all were banned from returning.

On Christmas Eve 1951, despite a decision earlier in the year by the Israeli High Court ordering that residents be allowed to return to their land as long as there was no emergency decree against it, the army destroyed the village. Only the church was left standing. In 1953, the lands were expropriated for Jewish settlement.

Internal refugees

Though they have rebuilt their lives, working and sending their children to school, the Iqrit villagers have spent the past 65 years living as internally displaced refugees in various cities and villages in the Galilee region, all along fighting a legal battle for the Supreme Court’s decision to be upheld. Their connection and affection for their land, and the sorrow of having lost it, has not dissipated.

A 1995 Israeli government committee recommended the limited resettlement of Iqrit and Biram — a Maronite village that has a similar history — but the decision has yet to be carried out, partially because the evacuees rejected the proposal as inadequate.

In 1997, the villagers submitted an appeal to have the committee’s recommendations implemented, together with their reservations. It was rejected in the court’s fifth ruling on the issue in 2003.

“It is not enough to stay home and fight for our rights. We need to stay here and fight from here. We have our role. Our work is divided between the Iqrit Committee Association, which is following legal channels, and us who are here,” Ghassan’s cousin, Samer Toume, 23, told Our Sunday Visitor.

“My role is to protect my history,” Ghassan said. “A person without history is someone who is lacking an existence. Everybody needs to feel a connection to somewhere, and this country does not let me feel a connection to the state, so at least I can have a sense of connection to this place. Maybe we have this feeling because something was taken from us.”

Their grandparents’ generation is fearful of what might happen to them while they stay at the village, but their parents support them because they realize the young people are doing nothing illegal, Ghassan said.

Built in 1875, the Church of Our Lady Mary has become a symbol for the village evacuees, and once a month many of the now 1,500-member strong community gather here for Mass. Weddings of Iqrit descendants take place here, and down at the bottom of the hill, the only expansion taking place in the village is in the cemetery where the villagers still bury their dead. Two years ago, the people gathered at the church, renovating it both inside and out as a symbol of their continuing presence and attachment to the place.

Nonviolent struggle

Last August, at the conclusion of the annual summer camp held here to teach the younger generation about their roots in Iqrit, a group of the counselors decided to stay. Trees were planted, chickens and donkeys and rabbits were brought in, and shelters were built, imitating the rural lifestyle of their grandparents.

Ghassan Toume, 24, waters herbs that he planted in Iqrit, Israel, near Lebanon. Photo by Debbie Hill

But according to Israel regulations, they are not allowed to make any physical changes to the site, and the shelters were destroyed by the Israel Lands Authority, which now has dominion over the land.

The inhabitants have since come to a sort of equilibrium with the authorities whereby they don’t build anything new on the land and the authorities from the Regional Council turn a blind eye.

Now, next to the church, there are thriving tomato plants, and not far away some wheat stalks cling stubbornly to the soil. Grapes have appeared on a grapevine that was found and nurtured at the entrance of the village.

It is the youths’ right to carry out the Supreme Court’s decisions and build homes on their land, according to Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour, himself an internal refugee from nearby Biram.

“This is an absolutely non-violent and polite struggle,” the archbishop said in a phone interview. “We are a nonviolent people, and we will continue to be nonviolent. That is central to our faith. The fact that these youths are returning to their land is a human right. It will bring great honor to Israel if it is able to bring justice where there is injustice.”

However, Archbishop Chacour said, the restitution of the two villages to their original inhabitants would have no bearing on the debate over the right of return or lack of right of return of Palestinian refugees because of the unique circumstances under which the villagers were evacuated.

United in faith

As Christians, they know the importance of forgiveness, said Samer, though it is difficult.

“We can forgive, but we cannot forget.”

The strong Christian faith of those in this struggle is what has united them and always given the people continuous hope that they will be able to return to their village, said Ghassan.

“I am protesting for my rights, but I have no anger. Anger doesn’t help. I am here to protect this place,” Ghassan told OSV, noting that the church bell has been stolen twice for scrap metal.

Ghassan and his friends maintain that most of the ancestral agricultural land remains uncultivated and could easily be returned to them.

Only the fear of setting a precedent for other refugee claims to have lands returned is keeping the government from following through with the decades-old court decision, Samer said.

While until now no officials have told them to leave, they realize it is a possibility, Ghassan said.

“We have to continue our struggle, to be here and pass on the story to the next generation so, in case we don’t succeed, they won’t forget,” Samer said. “Our role is to show that we will never forget what was taken from (our grandparents).” 

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.