Iqrit and Bir Am: A Christmas Tale With a Moral

By Richard Curtiss

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , December 1987

"In July 1951 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of another Christian village, Iqrit, whose inhabitants had been ordered, three years earlier, to leave their homes 'for two weeks' until 'military operations in the area were concluded.' After this judgement the Military Government found another justification to prevent them from returning. The villagers once more appealed to the Supreme Court, which decided to consider the case on 6 February 1952. But a month and a half before that date, on Christmas Day to be precise, the Israeli Defense Forces took the mukhtar of this Christian community to the top of a nearby hill and forced him to watch the show—the blowing up of every house in the village — which they had laid on for his benefit." —David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, Faber and Faber, London, 1977.

Modern Christmas stories generally have happy endings, unlike the original Christmas story, which led first to Herod and eventually to Calvary, and has never really ended. The story of Iqrit, and the neighboring Christian village of Bir Am, is in the tragic pattern.

There was a six-month interval between the United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine between its 1,300,000 Arab inhabitants and its 600,000 Jewish inhabitants and the May 14, 1948 proclamation of the state of Israel. Although the resolution had already given 53 percent of Palestine to the Jewish third of its population, the Haganah, Israel's future army, raced to seize as much additional land as possible before the scheduled British withdrawal on May 15, 1948. The Haganah theory was that the moment the British left, armies from neighboring Arab countries would invade and further territorial gains would be impossible.

In fact the "armies" of Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt—and the Arab volunteers who arrived from Syria and Lebanon—seemed able only to prevent further erosion of the Arab position, and were not entirely successful even at that. The Israelis concentrated on holding part of Jerusalem and roads leading to it, none of which had been awarded them by the United Nations, and clearing as many Arabs as possible from Galilee, which under the United Nations plan would have been divided between the Jewish and Arab states.

It was not until October 31, 1948, that the Israeli army occupied the two Galilean Christian villages of Iqrit and Bir Am, neither of which had taken part in the fighting that by then had continued for nearly a year. On November 5, the villagers were ordered to leave their homes for two weeks, and allowed to take only the provisions they needed for that length of time. The army provided locks for the houses and the villagers were handed the keys.

Originally the Israelis had intended to force them over the northern border into nearby Lebanon, but a Jewish friend of the villagers prevailed upon the Israeli military governor to allow them instead to stay in the nearby Arab village of Gish. Whenever the villagers sought to return to their homes, however, they were turned back by Israeli forces, and eventually Bir Am's 11,700 dunums of land were expropriated, as were Iqrit's 15,650 dunums.

Because the villagers were Melkite (Greek Catholic) Christians, their elders were able to bring their plight to the attention of the Vatican and to Christian institutions outside Israel. They received legal support in petitioning the Israeli courts for permission to return to their villages, and when they visited the villages to maintain the schools and church buildings, they frequently were accompanied by foreign relatives and visitors.

Finally, on July 31, 1951, the Israeli Supreme Court announced that there was "no legal impediment to the plaintiffs returning to their village." The military governor refused to implement the decision, however, and instead a new expulsion order was issued. Again the villagers appealed to the Supreme Court, which set February 6, 1952, as the date it would again consider the case of Iqrit. Father Elias Chacour, who was a child away at school at the time, has recorded in his book Blood Brothers the tale his own brothers told him of what happened next:

"For the second time, the village elders marched across the hill and presented the order to the Zionist soldiers...Without question or dispute, the commanding officer read the order. He shrugged. 'This is fine...We need some time to pull out. You can return on the 25th.'

"On Christmas! What an incredible Christmas gift for the village. The elders fairly ran across the hill to Gish to spread the news. At long last they would all be going home. The Christmas Eve vigil became a celebration of thanksgiving and joyful praise. On Christmas morning...bundled in sweaters and old coats supplied by the Bishop's relief workers, the villagers gathered in the first light of day...Mother, Father, Wardi, and my brothers all joined in singing a jubilant Christmas hymn as they mounted the hill... At the top of the hill their hymn trailed into silence...Why were the soldiers still there? In the distance, a soldier shouted, and they realized they had been seen. A cannon blast sheared the silence. Then another—a third...Tank shells shrieked into the village, exploding in fiery destruction. Houses blew apart like paper. Stones and dust flew amid the red flames and billowing black smoke. One shell slammed into the side of the church, caving in a thick stone wall and blowing off half the roof. The bell tower teetered, the bronze bell knelling, and somehow held amid the dust clouds and cannon fire... Then all was silent—except for the weeping of women and the terrified screams of babies and children.

"Mother and Father stood shaking, huddled together with Wardi and my brothers. In a numbness of horror, they watched as bulldozers plowed through the ruins, knocking down much of what had not already blown apart or tumbled. At last, Father said—to my brothers or to God, they were never sure—'Forgive them.' Then he led them back to Gish."

On September 16, 1953, while an appeal for the residents to return was pending for Bir Am, the Israeli air force bombed and completely destroyed the empty village — just as Israeli tanks had destroyed Iqrit on Christmas Day, 1951.


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Neither story ends there, however. In 1972 the issue flared up again when members of the two communities made their regular trip to repair the churches in the abandoned villages, and then refused to leave. They were forcibly removed but a delegation of Jews traveled from Tel Aviv to demonstrate solidarity with them. There were mutual recriminations between these sympathetic Israelis and the Israelis who had taken over the fields and groves expropriated from the Palestinian villagers. This prompted a delegation of Jewish writers to protest the injustice to then Prime Minister Golda Meir. Her answer set the pattern for subsequent Israeli government responses each time the matter has been raised. While it might be expedient to accede to the valid claims of these Christian Palestinians who had become an international embarrassment to Israel, who had never fought with their Jewish neighbors, and never before resisted the Israeli government, the Israeli prime minister said, their claims were no different from those of hundreds of other Christian and Muslim Palestinian refugees who had lost their homes, businesses, schools, churches, mosques, groves, and fields to Israelis. To return members of one group to their homes would set a precedent for others.

And there the matter stands. This September, former residents once again carried out repairs on the empty school and empty church still standing in deserted Bir Am. And, as so many times before, when they returned a few days later, the school had again been partially demolished and the church had again been damaged.

To some Israelis, this story may demonstrate only that one tough Israeli policeman with a bulldozer can, year after year, undo the efforts of dozens of timid Arabs working with their bare hands. Some Arabs may be reminded that for every Israeli there now are 50 Arabs, and increasingly, Arabs too, have bulldozers. For Americans, the moral of this Christmas story may be that all the US planes and all the US guns wielded so ruthlessly for 40 years by Israeli soldiers have not eradicated the memory of two tiny orchard villages in the gentle hills of Galilee, whose former inhabitants still visit them every year to rebuild their schools and churches.

Richard Curtiss is chief editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and the author of A Changing Image: American Perceptions of the Arab-Israeli Dispute.