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People & Culture
Iqrith: a village wiped off the map
The first thing one notices about the church is the stone stairway that juts out from half-way up the wall and rises seven steps into the air. It has no beginning and no end.
The church, which is the only building that remains in Iqrith, has been partially rebuilt and renovated. It was hit by one of the bombs which obliterated the rest of the village in a raid by the Israeli air force in late 1951.
Descending from the church towards the graveyard, the hillside is a mass of weeds and rubble - the stones of demolished Palestinian homes.
This is a tranquil place, and quiet except for the soft echoes of the muezzin calling from the mosques across the nearby border with Lebanon.
"When I was last here," said my guide Zuhaira Sabbagh, "the Israeli military was bombarding Lebanon and we could hear the explosions."
Suddenly there was a loud crack from the other side of the church. And then another and another. Going to find the source of the noise, we met a young man called Walla' Sbeit, who was using a large stone to break a log for the campfire.
Although Iqrith has been wiped from the page of the map, Sbeit and his friends are keeping the village alive. Tonight, as on many other nights, they will sleep in a makeshift cabin beside the church.
Another of the young people explained the fate of Iqrith. In 1948, the villagers, aware that they could be massacred as had been the case with many of the Palestinians under the new zionist occupation, accepted a deal which was proposed by the Israeli authorities.
They agreed to leave the village for two weeks, after which they were promised they would be allowed to return. But during that fortnight, the Israelis declared that the village was a military zone. Its inhabitants were not allowed to return - at least, in this life.
The villagers used legal means to fight their case and the Israeli supreme court declared that there was no legal reason why they should not be permitted to go back to their homes. However, the military government did not allow them to go back. And on Christmas Eve 1951 it added an emphatic "fact on the ground" in respect of Iqrith.
The entire village, with the exception of the graveyard and part of the church, was destroyed from the air. For whatever reason, the zionists declined to use dynamite or bulldozers and instead sent the air force to bomb the empty village.
Six decades later, the descendants of the people who used to live here are still fighting on.
"I was born and raised in Haifa city. I had everything provided for me, my father worked hard to provide food. But this place, of all places around the world, is the one place where I feel at home," Sbeit explained.
"First of all I was raised on the stories of my grandparents who lived here, who were raised and born here, in the houses that used to exist, who ran between the streets and would tell me about their story, what happened to them and their parents. In '48, the tragedy of when they were kicked out and banished from their homes.
"They would tell me about the story of their wedding, happy moments and sad moments. And I used to come here every time since I was a kid. They took me and brought me to the fields to get some herbs, they would teach me how to pick them up and be part of the land, learn how to take from the land and give back to the land," says Sbeit.
"They taught me how to love this land and respect it, and to maintain it because it's mine. It's nobody else's.
"For me, I'm the most legitimate person who has the right to claim this land. Because I know the trees in here, I know the meaning of the houses in this place.
"Every year we have a summer camp, called the 'return camp,' so we come here for five or six days in a row and we have tents all around the church. People sleep in the church to get to know the land, to keep the connection with the land."
This had been a Christian village, and Sbeit told me they held a mass.
"Someday I'll come back here and get buried. When I die, I'll be dead here."
The former inhabitants of Iqrith and even their children and grandchildren are allowed the right of return on the condition that they are no longer alive. The Israeli authorities have not forbidden their burial in the cemetery of the former village.
The people from Iqrith have a way of saying that one of their number has died. They say that he, or she, has "returned to the village."
Why is Iqrith not on the map? In 1948, the year of the birth of the state of Israel, 80 per cent of the Palestinian population was ethnically cleansed from that territory.
Iqrith is only one example and its inhabitants were among the lucky ones - they were not massacred, unlike many in the 400 Arab towns and villages that were destroyed by the Israelis.
The majority of the Arab population in 1948 was banished - to the West Bank, to Gaza, to refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. But some of them managed to remain in what became Israel and today they fight alongside their brothers and sisters, refusing to allow their history and identity to be erased.
Today, Israel continues its process of ethnic cleansing and colonisation, demolishing Palestinian homes and replacing them with zionist settlements.
But the fire burned bright beside the lonely church on Good Friday night, as the grandchildren of Iqrith bedded down to continue the struggle.
This article was first published in the Morning Star.
Noah Tucker is co-editor of 21st Century Socialism