Sunday morning police and authorities with the Israeli Lands Administration arrested three youth in the village of Iqrit near the border with Lebanon, uprooting trees and confiscating tents and furniture. The youths—Walaa Sbeit, Nidal Khoury and Jeries Khiatt were eating breakfast outside of the village’s church, the only fixed structure in Iqrit, when around 20 officers arrived.
“We had our mass in our church, and it was a memorial for a man from Iqrit who passed away a month ago,” said Shadia Sbeit (aunt of Walaa), the village spokesperson. Khoury yelled as the police took chairs and tables that were borrowed for the commemoration. In turn, three officers threw him to the ground and kicked him repeatedly, said Sbeit.
Monday morning the three youths were arraigned in a district court. Sbeit and Khiatt were released under house arrest for 60 days, for the charge of interfering with an officer’s duty. After the arrest, tens of other villagers arrived to Iqrit and several other and supporters gathered outside of the jail where they were held.
Aside from the church and the cemetery there are no other traces of the Iqrit built around 270 years ago by Christian Palestinian families. The Israeli army bombed the entire village in 1951. Then the newly established state of Israel appropriated the area. For decades Iqrit’s leafy hills were under virtual lock and key by a closed military order, and today it is under the stewardship of the lands administration re-zoned as a park. Under Israeli law, permanent structures cannot be built in nature preserves and so the youth sleep in the town’s church or in tents.
Alex Kane and I visited Iqrit during April for their annual Easter celebration. While we were there, the village appeared heavily monitored, with a drone passing overhead. At that time we interviewed Sbeit who is a well-known musician with the Palestinian music ground the Republic of DebKey. I spoke with him again last week during a drive as he headed from Haifa to Iqrit to spend the night. In the car he mused that in Iqrit he and the others “live without material possessions,” but that they are fortunate in that they have done the impossible; they forged the Palestinian dream of returning to their taken lands. For Sbeit, that meant curating a new possibility for how Palestinians can imagine their futures inside of a state that defines itself as Jewish homeland. When he and around 20 youth took up residence in the church two years ago, it marked the only example of descendants of Palestinians expelled during 1948 being able to return to their family’s original village.
The raid of Iqrit comes just two weeks after the Pope’s visit to the region, where Shadia Sbeit and her husband had lunch with the Holy See. “We asked for direct interference with Prime Minister Netatnyahu.” Iqrit villagers, like many Palestinians expelled during Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe” when over 750,000 were forcibly removed or fled, want to go back to their village. And unlike most of the over 500 villages destroyed between 1947-51, nothing was ever constructed on top of Iqrit. There is no new Israeli town, no Jewish National Fund forest, where evergreens grow “memoricide,” fielding over the traces of a recent Palestinian past across the Jewish state, according to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé.
Villagers of Iqrit are due back in court on July 1st as they have petitioned to connect the church to electricity. Separately, they have a complaint against the municipality of Ma’ale Asaf to turn over $25,000 in government funds allocated for the restoration of the cemetery.