In the luscious green hills of the Northern Galilee stands a ghostly-white Mary, surveying the land from atop a Melkite church. The village of Iqrit had a population of 491 in 1948, the year of its forceful depopulation, but she is now the only permanent resident to greet you upon arrival. Seven years ago, however, Iqritians decided they could not wait for the unfulfilled implementation of the 1951 Supreme Court order which ruled in favour of their right to return to their homes. Since 1995, Iqrit has held summer camps to politically activate the descendants of its displaced residents. But this was not enough for the people of Iqrit, and they have since established a rota to occupy the building, and have even developed a comprehensive plan for reconstructing the village. The church has not been empty since. Even right-wing activists who used to repeatedly trespass and steal the church bell have ceased their activities.
I was brought to Iqrit by Amir Toumie, 25, who was a teenager when the initiative begun. Although he was born and raised in Haifa, a 58km journey away, he considers this village his home, and he practices his own right of return almost every weekend. Despite the quotidian demands of life and the biting cold of Northern Israel in December, Toumie and the rest of the Iqritians remain undeterred. Before we set off from Haifa at midnight, Toumie instructs me to wear multiple layers, as our grandiose bedroom of the church isn’t famous for its insulation.
On the journey, Toumie tells me about the history of his village. The descendants see it as a duty to cultivate its history, in its tragic yet hopeful detail, as loyally as possible. Unlike most areas which were ethnically cleansed during the war, Iqrit was captured in an October 1948, after the State of Israel was already established. Hence the IDF offensive known as Operation Hiram expelled its own citizens. The unarmed population of mostly farmers were told by the army that they could return within a fortnight. The residents successfully appealed to the Israeli supreme court, but this didn’t stop the IDF from razing the Christian village on Christmas Eve. The residents are still waiting to return to their lands permanently 72 years later.
After turning down an inconspicuous side road on route 899, we begin our ascent up towards the church. The state, Toumie explains, has been actively hostile to this project: they have demolished any structure that the residents have attempted to build there, even uprooting roads and trees to prevent access and restoration to the village.
After greeting another Iqritian sleeping in the appended clergy house, Toumie shepherds me into the church — the centre of the village, and the centre of his activism. On the left, there is picture hung on the wall of the village before the Nakba, with the slopes of the hill bursting almost precariously with homes. The next day we would go the same point of view of the photograph, revealing a poignant contrast: unkempt boughs protruding onto the path up to the church, without a building in sight. To the right, however, there is hope in the form of a baptism basin. Despite their dispersal across Israel and beyond, the villagers have been hosting regular masses, as well as their baptisms, weddings, and religious holidays in the Greek Catholic church of their ancestors. The same basin will be used to baptise Toumie’s first nephew in 2020, and Toumie assures me that the pews will be overflowing in the upcoming Christmas mass. He leads me towards our beds, beneath the altarpiece.
After rummaging through my bag to find all my remaining layers, we head outside into quiet and darkness. I ask Toumie about his first moment of political consciousness. As a young boy at school, he remembers learning about the Israeli state and the strength of its army. He felt reassured by this strength, and thought it was easier to embrace Israeli identity. When he mentioned these feeling to his mother, who is ordinarily stoical, she exerted a rare motherly firmness: “We are Palestinian,” she told him. From then on, the matter was settled in his mind. As he learned more and more about Palestinian history, he became more resentful. The solution was violent struggle against Zionism and Zionists. But as he grew up, his activism took a more structured, productive, and meaningful form. He is also one of the founders of Haifa Youth Movement, and helped to coordinate their most recent project Mahalli, meaning “my place” and “local”. In its own words, Mahalli is a “Haifa based Palestinian initiative and exhibition” which views art as a “liberating tool”. Despite his deep attachment to Haifa, “his” place where he is a “local”, he still longs for Iqrit.
When dawn arrives, he prepares us coffee in a finjan. He only learnt the traditional Arab method a few months back, and like so many simple things in the context of displacement — wielding a brush and broom to dust down the church, gathering and sawing branches from their ancestral trees for firewood —it became infused with meaning. Beneath the winter sun, he takes me for a tour of the hilltop, gesturing to southern Lebanon and the surrounding Jewish towns of Even Menachem and the looming Shomera, whose livestock graze Iqrit’s lands. Two other moshavim — Goren and Gornot ha-Galil — complete the village’s encirclement. The latter was built on land that was confiscated from Iqrit’s farmers. Toumie identifies several relics of the lost world of the village: A circle of blocs where homes once stood now seem like they were arranged for ritual; a concrete slab that the village elders tell was used as a kitchen table is strewn in the rough vegetation.
Donning his traditional red and white hattah, it is clear he lives and breathes his cause. His activism is realised in his professional life, where he is the Parliamentary and Legal Advocacy Coordinator for the Mossawa Center – The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel. This work expanded his horizons about the potential avenues to fight for his case, but also connected Iqrit to the broader problems facing Palestinians. He learned “that the Iqrit case was one of the many cases that we deal with in the Arab community.” He uses his platform and access with the Haifa-based NGO to stake the claim of the village at every opportunity. Toumie is also currently applying for a PhD, where he will examine the effectiveness of different channels of advocacy for the Palestinian cause.
The story of Iqrit is both a paradigm and outlier in the story of return. Given Israel’s near-unanimous and absolute denial of the right of return, the government are eager to avoid anything that could bestow this idea with legitimacy, or inflame the fiery sentiments surrounding the issue. They fear that ceding ground on Iqrit amounts in a tacit acknowledgement of the Nakba, which is to be avoided at all costs. The advocacy for Iqrit therefore straddles a difficult line between the particularistic and the universal. On one hand, the story of expulsion, dispersal, and prevention of return makes Iqrit a microcosm for the whole situation in Israel-Palestine. Yet connecting Iqrit to the broader struggle could undo its best shot at achieving justice; after all, Iqritians are Israeli citizens and the case has a precedent within the Israeli legal system. Toumie tells me that many of the local Jewish population in the Northern Galilee support this right, pointing to his villagers’ ongoing relationship with the nearby Kibbutz Eilon. To him, there is no contradiction between leveraging the specifics of Iqrit’s case in advocacy, and locating this in his broader vision. It is simply a matter of strategy.
Toumie is well-known to many Knesset members through his work, and working within the corridors of power that has informed his outlook on activism: “When you learn everything about the system, whether this is an MEP in Brussels or a member of Knesset, you learn where it is best to direct your time and energy. There is a lot of empty rhetoric in politics and it is important to understand who you can trust, who you cannot, and then pass this on to others. An intimate knowledge of any system is a huge advantage. At the end of the day, working against the system isn’t helpful because power is within the system. It may be rigged, but this doesn’t make it immune to change. You just have to be careful not to get contaminated by the what’s inside.”
Having rubbed shoulders with so many reputed people, I ask him about his role models. He is pensive for a moment and then recalibrates. With absolute clarity, he tells me: “I’m done with looking up to people . We know what we want and how to get it. There is a big generational divide and the mantle is on us now . Our generation is very active and we know how to organise ourselves. The older generation was weighed down by ego, and this is a huge problem. We, on the other hand, are putting the people first.” While he believes political parties are critical in advocacy, they often evoke a tribalism and competition among its members that hinder the Palestinian cause. “There is an urgent need for unity,” he tells me, ” and there needs to be more communication to divide tasks properly and according to expertise.” For him, Palestinians working within a system that seems to try to trip them up at every turn “have to come from a position of strength and have a clear vision.” Although he feels like this is still lacking, the horizontal structure of the activism in Iqrit certainly seems to embody at least a first step in this alternative vision, without any ego in sight. “If all I accomplished in my life was to return Iqrit to its people, I would die a happy man,” he told me.
Although Iqritians cannot live in their village, Toumie and his fellow villagers can die there. The population still has the right to bury their dead in Iqrit’s cemetery. The graveyard is strangely alive: pictures of the dead adorn each tomb, with the more recently deceased colourised, and the smell of incense, burning in kitchen frying pans, filling the air. Each tomb is padlocked and the key is thrown away. To bury new family members, the lock must be smashed and then replaced. With the number of Iqritians proliferating, and the cemetery prohibited from expansion, Toumie explains to me the process which prevents this becoming a problem. In line with Melkite tradition, each family from the village has its own large familial tomb. In each tomb, the caskets are stacked on top of one another within the tomb, but eventually the wood itself rots. Once the wood rots, a family member will enter, burying the remaining bones in the earth at the bottom of the tomb. “This is one solution to the problem of burial space,” he laughs.
The romance of village life belies its limits, especially for two urban men. We decided to make an excursion out of Iqrit towards the city of Safed. As one of Judaism’s four holy cities, Safed has an especially contested and bitter history. The city traded hands between colonial powers over the course of centuries, but in 1948, the Arab population were expelled conclusively after fierce fighting. The city is taut with such tensions. Despite a wholly Jewish population, Christmas lights guide you into the foggy city. The minaret of Safed’s ancient mosque cautiously pokes its head out of the mist and rain, barely discernible from the city’s vantage points. A torrent of Likud posters stare you down upon entrance. It makes me feel uneasy that Amir, who always holds his head high, is wrapped tight in his hattah to fight the cold. I wonder to myself whether the mostly Haredi residents of this city have ever seen one in its raw flesh. We proceed tentatively, but anxiety soon subsides into mourning.
On Jerusalem Street, above the entrance to the old city, there is a memorial to the “liberation” of Safed, after the Jewish quarter was besieged by the Arab residents. This narrative of the 1948 war is mutually unintelligible to Amir’s understanding.
“How does it make you feel to read this?” I asked him.
“It makes you doubt your own history,” he told me.
The definitiveness of a memorial — carved in stone — is an affront to even the most confident of people.
“Being here, I have very mixed feelings. The architecture of the old city is so familiar and so beautiful, but there are no Arabs left in the city. If I had the choice, maybe I would live here too.”