Authorities threaten displaced community’s return to village

The displaced Maronite community of Bir’em has decided to implement its right of return by resettling its land. Authorities have threatened to evict the villagers should they refuse to leave.

A villager in Bir’em handles the tower bell on the old church (Oren Ziv / Activestills)
A villager in Bir’em handles the tower bell on the old church (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Exactly one year ago, the displaced people of Iqrit decided that after 64 years of empty promises, they would wait no longer to return to their lands. Just last week, the villagers of Iqrit celebrated the first anniversary of their outpost built on confiscated lands, and announced plans to go on expanding their presence on the ground. Now it appears that Iqrit is not alone, as another displaced community on the border with Lebanon is also trying to revive its destroyed village.

On Saturday, following their weekly communal prayer in the old church (the last standing structure in the village), the Committee for the Uprooted of Kufr Bir’em erected several dozen tents on lands that once were their own and now serve as a national park, and stated they would not leave again. Since then, they have been holding shifts, with approximately 25 members of the village at the site at any given time, where they organize social, religious and other activities outside the church. The action is taking place about half a year after anti-Christian graffiti was sprayed on the village church.

Tents set up on Bir’em lands and the Land Administration’s warning sign (photo: Committee for the Uprooted of Kafar Bir’em)
Tents set up on Bir’em lands and the Land Administration’s warning sign (photo: Committee for the Uprooted of Kafar Bir’em)

“We are sick and tired of governments that choose to ignore us, that think that if enough time passes we’ll simply forget and forgo our rights to the land,” says Deeb Maroun, a member of the committee. “We think it’s simply absurd that so many court rulings and official committees have supported our cause, that the majority of Israelis support us, yet we are still not allowed to return. We want to put the story of Bir’em back in the news and in public awareness, and this is the best way we believe we can get it – with a non-violent return.”

On Wednesday, officials from the Israel Land Administration showed up at the scene and posted a notification warning the people of Bir’em that they are trespassing and demanding that they “stop all work being done on the site.” They told villagers that evictions will take place if they do not leave on their own accord within seven days. While the people of Iqrit have been able to hold on to their outpost for a year – only suffering demolitions and uprooting of everything built or planted outside the church area – it seems authorities are going to be harder on the people of Bir’em, perhaps because their lands now serve as a national park with ancient Jewish relics in it. “We are studying the notice we were given and will decide how to respond,” says Maroun. “We are not looking for any confrontations, we do not use violence and we’re not trying to build anything. We’re simply starting to live the life of Bir’em again, and all are invited to visit in peace.”

Ruins of Bir’em, off the official park pathway (Oren Ziv / Activestills)
Ruins of Bir’em, off the official park pathway (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

 

The background story of both Bir’em and Iqrit is unique in the history of Israel and the Nakba, or 1948 war. After the war was over, IDF forces entered the two Christian villages (Maronite Bir’em and Catholic Iqrit) and ordered the residents (by then citizens in the newly founded State of Israel) to leave their homes for a period of two weeks. The official reason was the military’s fear that their closeness to the Lebanese border would endanger the region’s security. The two weeks soon became a month, then a year, and soon enough, Bir’em was populated by newly arrived Jewish immigrants.

After the villagers’ petition to the High Court led to a ruling that they must be allowed to return, the houses were demolished and the land confiscated. Repeated court victories for both villages The court’s rulings have not yet led to the villagers’ return, largely because of the fear of successive governments that obeying the court’s ruling would open the gates for much larger claims of return on the part of 1948 refugees and internally displaced people within Israel. Residents of the two villages are still determined to realize their rights, and have maintained links to their lands by visiting the surviving churches and cemeteries for years, as well as holding yearly summer camps to teach the young their own history.

[Correction, 24.8: the court only recognized the right of Iqritians to return to their village. A similar petition by Bir’em was rejected].

 

 

[Update, 24.8]

The Israel Land Administration sent the following statement: “No official body of the state has recognized the right to resettle in Bir’em. This is therefore clearly an act of invading state owned lands. The Administration intends to evict the invaders in case they do not leave of their own will. It also intends to demand they pay for the eviction, which is otherwise funded by tax payers”.

Parts of the ruined Bir'em. Villagers are not allowed to return in spite of court rulings (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

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