Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1987, pages
Iqrit and Bir Am: A Christmas Tale With a Moral
By Richard Curtiss
"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
"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.
Whether or not it's a media conspiracy, whenever there's good news
about Israel or bad news about an Arab state, it's on Page 1. Conversely,
bad news about Israelis and good news about Arabs is on Page 65.
Editors who break the rule lose advertisers and, eventually, their
jobs. Here's some information you might have missed if your local
newspaper doesn't have a Page 65.
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
and the author of A Changing Image: American Perceptions
of the Arab-Israeli Dispute.
Books About Bir Am and Iqrit
To learn more about Bir Am and Iqrit, the American Educational
Trust offers the following books:
•Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour with David Hazard,
Revell, 1986, 224pp. List $9.95, AET $7.95 for one and $9.95 for
two. The autobiography of a Catholic priest who was only seven when
he and his family were driven out of the village of Bir Am.
•The Arabs in Israel by Sabri Jiryis, Monthly Review
Press, 1976, 314 pp. List $5.95, AET $3.95 for one and $5.95 for
two. The classic work on the social, economic, and political status
of Palestinians living in Israel.