“[Israel] does not want to allow a precedent of people returning to their villages and staying there permanently, so they are increasingly aggressively pushing them out.”
RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank — Three Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested on Sunday morning during a confrontation with Israeli police and land authorities who had raided an activist camp in the village of Iqrit, located near the Lebanese border in Israel’s northern Galilee region.
The three young men who were arrested were Wlaa Sbeit, Nidal Khoury and Jerias Khayyat.
In October 1948, the Israeli military occupied Iqrit and expelled its uniformly Christian residents. Three years later, the Israeli High Court ruled that the displaced could return to the village, but a unit of soldiers demolished all of the homes and structures with dynamite and other explosives on Christmas Day in 1951.
Only an historical church and a graveyard were left intact and remain standing today, and the majority of the refugees were “internally displaced” — exiled from Iqrit yet remaining in the newly-born state of Israel and taking citizenship there.
Since their forced displacement, many of Iqrit’s residents and their descendants have visited the village’s remains annually to pay homage to their heritage and to observe Christian holidays and the anniversary of their displacement.
In August 2012, a group of about a dozen Palestinian youth activists — all of them descendants of refugees from the village — returned to Iqrit and began to rebuild parts of the destroyed village. Since then, they’ve been living there in tents and the lone church.
Speaking to MintPress News by telephone, Shadia Sbeit, a media spokesperson for Iqrit, said Israel Land Administration officers and police forces arrived in the village at around 10:00 am on Sunday.
“We think it was because the day before we had held a memorial for a family that was displaced from Iqrit [in 1948],” she explained.
Land management officers uprooted the activists’ garden and confiscated their belongings, including furniture, camping supplies, food and personal items, as well as mattresses and blankets.
When the young people attempted to prevent Israel Land Administration officers from taking their personal belongings, such as cellphones, police officers intervened to arrest them.
“There was violent behavior and unnecessary force,” Sbeit said. “Three people were kicking Nidal [Khoury] while he was on the ground.”
Wlaa Sbeit, Khoury and Khayyat were subsequently arrested and taken to an Israeli police station in Nahariya for interrogation.
“The first problem is that upon arrival the land authorities and police did not introduce themselves or explain why they were present,” Oram Mahameed, an attorney for Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, told MintPress. “This is required by Israeli law.”
He explained that when he visited them after their interrogation there were “bruises on the face and the arms” on two of the three young men, who were given “charges related to preventing Israeli authorities from completing their work.”
“It seems that they hit them solely for shouting, and shouting isn’t an offense,” Mahameed continued, adding that it was the first documented case he was aware of in which land authorities — not police — were the ones using force.
On Monday morning, a local magistrate court decided to extend Khoury’s detention until Wednesday, and the other two detainees were released and put under house arrest until June 16.
The judge also ruled that Wlaa Sbeit and Jerias Khayyat are prohibited from entering Iqrit for 60 days — a type of ruling that is generally reserved for situations in which an individual or group poses a threat to others.
“But they are not a danger to Iqrit,” Mahameed said. “It is clear that this was a political decision by Israeli authorities who did not like the youth’s return to the village.”
Although Shadia Sbeit, the group’s spokesperson, said this was the first case of arrests in the last two years, Iqrit-based activists described a pattern of harassment by Israeli authorities, including monitoring, regular visits from Israel Land Administration officers and unofficial police interviews.
Returned to “difficult conditions”
In recent years, activists have held summer camps in the village to teach the history of Iqrit and other issues pertaining to Palestinians in Israel.
In August 2012, a group of youth activists decided not to wait for the permission of Israeli authorities and returned to the village on their own. Since then, they have hosted regular cultural events, holiday celebrations and political forums there.
Ameer Ashqar, 20, is among those who have lived in Iqrit on a regular basis since August 2012. His grandparents were driven out of Iqrit in 1948 and resettled in the nearby town of Kafr Yassif, asrecently reported by MintPress.
Ashqar explained that the activists have faced “difficult conditions” since their return, particularly during the last two winters. “We get electricity from a solar system, so we were getting electricity for maybe a quarter of a day or half a day at best,” he told MintPress.
“Our generators didn’t always work, and the weather conditions were very rough at times,” he added.
Ashqar and the others have resided permanently in a single room in the church, which had to be renovated in order to make it safe enough for living. “Every now and then the church floods because of the rain and snow during the winter.”
“The police always come and bother us,” he said. “They come, ask questions, and confiscate property. They come and take whatever they want and leave.”
During this year’sEaster celebrations in Iqrit, a number Israeli surveillance drones hummed overhead, including two that crashed in a nearby field.
Elsewhere, activists have adopted the young people’s tactic in Iqrit toreturn to Kafr Baram, another destroyed Galilee village hugging the Israel-Lebanon border.
For months, Israeli authorities demolished anything activists in Kafr Baram built and uprooted their plants and gardens. Despite an appeal to stay on their land, an Israeli court last week ruled against them and ordered their eviction for Wednesday.
Nadim Nashif, director of Balanda, a Haifa-based Palestinian advocacy group, said that Israel is afraid that what has happened to Iqrit could spread to other demolished Palestinian areas across present-day Israel.
Israel “does not want to allow a precedent of people returning to their villages and staying there permanently, so they are increasingly aggressively pushing them out,” Nashif told MintPress.
“The government wants to tell them they can go to their villages but not stay there in any kind of permanent way… it’s scared that more [internal] refugees will begin returning to their ancestral lands.”
Around 25 percent of Palestinians who remained in the state of Israel after its establishment were internally displaced, added Nashif, who hopes to see similar initiatives spread to other depopulated Palestinians areas in Israel.
Israeli policies are often sculpted to maintain a Jewish majority in the country, including some 50 laws discriminating against the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel by limiting their political expression and access to land and other state resources, according to Adalah’s online database.
In March, Israel’s hardline right-wing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed transferring part of Israel’s minority of Palestinian citizens from their land to a potential Palestinian state.
“Israel doesn’t like that the return of Palestinians to Iqrit, and Kafr Baram has raised international awareness about the issue of internal refugees,” Nashif concluded.
Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_