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Page last updated at 08:13 GMT, Wednesday, 23 April 2008 09:13 UK

Clinging to dream of Palestine village

By Martin Asser
BBC News, Iqrit, Israel

According to our Israeli road atlas, Route 899 runs from the sea along the Lebanese border to the town of Sasa, and along the way passes an "archaeological ruin" called Iqrit.

Iqrit in the distance behind locked gate
Iqrit's only remaining permanent structure is the old stone church

The three-dot symbol on the map is one of hundreds of such locations throughout this historically rich land - but this is no biblical or Roman-era relic.

Iqrit was an Arab Christian village vacated during the 1948-49 war, one of hundreds of villages in the former Palestine whose populations either went into exile or, as in the Iqritis' case, into internal displacement in the new Israeli state.

While traces of many of these deserted villages have all but disappeared, the sparsely wooded hilltop of Iqrit - against all odds - continues to play host to its former inhabitants and their children and grandchildren.

On the first Saturday of every month, a priest comes to hold mass in the only permanent building left in the village, the blue-domed St Mary's church.

Here Iqritis get married and christen their children, and they bury dead in the little cemetery at the bottom of the hill.

On Sundays and public holidays, youngsters play football on the hilltop's only flat area, parents arrange picnics and old-timers reminisce or sit in silent thought.

Hopes dashed

One old man, 80-year-old Asad Mbada Daoud, says he remembers clearly the day Israeli troops captured Iqrit, in October 1948.

Initially, it seemed the 450 inhabitants might remain in their homes after surrendering to the troops and pledging to live in peace under Israeli rule.

Asad Daoud holds up a pre-1951 picture of Iqrit village
Asad Daoud was 20 when his village surrendered to the Israeli army

After a week, however, they were evacuated by force to al-Rama, about 12 miles (20km) south, while the army "cleaned" the border area of Arab fighters.

"It was a very hard life," says Mr Daoud. "All our food and resources were in the village, we had no work. We lived 60 to a room in schools, or stayed in empty houses of refugees."

Assurances that they would be allowed to return after a fortnight were not honoured; weeks of exile turned into months, years. Despite several court rulings in the inhabitants' favour, the Israeli military prevented their return citing emergency regulations.

On Christmas Eve in 1951, army officers took some village elders to a nearby hill and they watched as the old stone houses were blown up with dynamite and tank fire, as many other Palestinian villages had been.

Burial rights

Already however, the Iqritis' persistence had started to become apparent, for one thing bringing their dead for burial here.

Grave in Iqrit cemetery

"We tried to bury Diab Sbayt here in 1949," says Maruf Ashkar, another octogenarian. "But the police came and told us to disinter him and take him to Fasuta" (a still-populated Christian village nearby).

Villagers launched petitions, more court cases and parliamentary hearings, but the army remained adamant. Even Pope John Paul II took up their case on his historic millennial visit to the Holy Land, but to no avail.

They did win the legal right to bury their dead in Iqrit, but to date that has been their only concrete success.

The old men's stories continue as we leave the shade of the high church walls and walk down rutted tracks past the piles of grey stones that were their old homes.

Mr Ashkar picks wild thyme from the rubble which he hopes will take root in his "temporary" home of many decades, Kafr Yassif.

Enduring commitment

We pass Hana Nasser, who was 10 in 1948, sitting with his head in his hands. "I am here on the ruins of my house," he says.

"I come here to sit almost every Sunday. I will never forget my home."

Hana Nasser sitting on the ruins of his former home
Hana Nasser says he will never abandon the home he left at the age of 10

The people of Iqrit are luckier than many of their compatriots living as refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories - now numbering millions - who have not laid eyes on their homes since 1948.

Israel presents vigorous arguments for rejecting the Palestinian refugees' right of return - pragmatically Israel argues that it needs to remain a Jewish-majority state and morally it points to the similarly large numbers of Jews who fled Arab countries after 1948.

But it is hard for the former residents of Iqrit and their descendants to understand why the authorities block them - full Israeli citizens - from re-establishing their community in the village, unless it is to avoid setting a precedent for other absentee Palestinians to return.

As Israel's diamond jubilee approaches next month - a date marked as Nakba (catastrophe) by Palestinians, Iqrit is certainly a testament to the enduring Palestinian desire to remain in touch with life pre-1948, whatever the obstacles.

"I'm confident I will return to my home here," Nemi Ashkar, one of the younger organisers of the Iqrit campaign, says with irony. "But I want to return alive, and not just to our cemetery."


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