Homes Bulldozed Almost 40 Years Ago : Israeli Arabs Still Waiting for Return of Lost Village

Times Staff Writer

This village is not found on modern Israeli maps. The only indication they give that there was ever any life here is a tiny symbol that, according to the map legends, signifies the presence of historic ruins.

But the maps are misleading, because there is still a lot of life on this breezy, wooded hilltop near the Lebanese border.

People still come to what's left of a 200-year-old Maronite Christian Church in Biram to be married and buried. They celebrate their feasts and weekends here, sitting under the trees on rickety, wood-slatted folding chairs that date from before the creation of the Israeli state. They have even organized a summer camp for their children here.

"All of our happy and our sad occasions we spend in Biram," said attorney Elias Shukry.

About the only thing Shukry and the other Arab natives cannot do in Biram is sleep here, because their homes were all torn down by the Israeli army almost 40 years ago. It makes Biram a kind of Israeli antithesis of an American ghost town--a place where the buildings are gone but the people remain.

Biram and Ikrit, a nearby Arab village that suffered the same fate, still tug on the Israeli national conscience. Nearly everyone acknowledges that the villagers were wronged. But the wrong lies so close to the most sensitive issues of Israel's existence that two generations of Israeli leaders have proven incapable of righting it.

The latest effort, begun last September, has already foundered on the shoals of Israel's precariously balanced political system. And so complex is the issue that it puts Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on the opposite side of the argument from Moshe Arens, the former ambassador to Washington who is among Shamir's closest political allies and the man Shamir is reported to favor as his successor as leader of the rightist Likud Bloc.

Israeli forces ordered Biram's residents out of their village on Nov. 13, 1948, during the Arab-Israeli war that confirmed the Jewish state's independence. The villagers hadn't fought on the Arab side. In fact, they offered the Israeli troops bread and salt in a traditional gesture of welcome, and the army promised they would be allowed to return to their homes within a week.

Some villagers went to nearby Lebanon, where most have relatives and where the bulk of the world's Maronite Christians live. But the majority stayed in the Galilee, in Jish or other Arab towns inside Israel, and waited to go home.

They've been waiting ever since, whipsawed between extremes of hope and despair by seemingly schizophrenic official government attitudes.

Seven months after they were ordered out, the evacuees got a letter from Israel's founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, saying it was not the intention of the government to confiscate their lands. And in 1951, Israel's High Court of Justice confirmed the villagers' right to return as soon as the situation permitted.

The Defense Ministry responded by declaring Ikrit and Biram to be "security zones," and in 1953, village buildings were destroyed.

Since then, two more prime ministers, including the elder statesman of the political right, Menachem Begin, have affirmed that an injustice was done to the villagers and promised to rectify it.

Tried to Show Good Faith

Meanwhile, the former residents of Biram and Ikrit, who are among the 700,000 Arabs who now hold Israeli citizenship, have done everything they could think of to show their good faith.

"In 40 years, not one person uprooted from Biram was even interrogated, much less imprisoned for any security offense," asserted attorney Shukry, who lives and practices in Nazareth.

Several have even volunteered for service in the Israeli army, border guards, or national police, waiving the blanket exemption from military service that is given to Israeli Arabs. But to no avail.

"From 1948, we've had promises," Shukry said. "But they have never been fulfilled." Foreign Minister Shimon Peres undertook the latest review of the Ikrit and Biram question last September, toward the end of his turn at the helm of Israel's national unity government. When he relinquished the top job to Shamir a few weeks later, Arens became the minister responsible for Arab affairs.

Arens Devises Formula

"We think we have to come up with a formula that will rectify the wrong done to the residents and end the suffering caused to them over the years," Arens said. And he devised a plan to return about 100 acres of land adjacent to the original village for resettlement. From the former villagers' point of view, it was an even more generous proposal than that put together under the ostensibly more liberal Peres.

At a meeting with Arens in early June, Shukry was effusive, comparing the residents of Biram with the Biblical Jews on their trek out of Egypt.

"The Jewish people spent 40 years wandering in the desert, and we've spent 40 years wandering outside of Biram," he said. "The Jewish people got their redemption through Moshe Rabbenu (the prophet Moses); we will get our redemption from Moshe Arens."

But the Arens plan triggered a furor on Israel's far political right--a sector that has become critical to Shamir's hopes of combating Peres, who is campaigning for new elections, and remaining in office for the 15 months left of his term.

Hundreds Protest

Hundreds of right-wing protesters gathered here a few weeks ago to protest the Arens plan. And Jewish residents of neighboring Dovev, a cooperative agricultural settlement built largely on former Biram lands, threatened to evacuate their strategically placed homes along the northern border if the Arabs are permitted to rebuild.

"We came here in 1963," explained Menachem Peretz, secretary of the Dovev settlement, made up of nearly 600 mostly religious immigrants from Morocco and Iran. "People from Ikrit and Biram were moved in 1948. . . . I understand (that) wrong was done to them. But it wasn't on my account. And I, as a new immigrant, shouldn't have to pay for a mistake the government made in 1948."

Peretz said in an interview that the authorities should first allot more land for 40 new families that want to join Dovev.

"They should give preference to Jews here," he said. Besides, Peretz argued, while the former Biram residents have publicly renounced any claim on former village lands now part of either Dovev or the neighboring Biram kibbutz, he is skeptical. "I don't think they're going to be happy with the 400 dunhams (100 acres) Arens is going to give them."

Denies Political Move

Peretz and other critics have accused Arens of trying to earn political capital among Israeli Arab voters, a charge the minister denied in an interview. "Even if someone said to me that it will not gain Likud (his party) a single vote, I'd say (the Arab villagers) ought to be able to return," Arens declared.

A widespread concern among the Israeli rightists is that the government will set a dangerous precedent by allowing the former villagers of Ikrit and Biram to return.

It has been estimated that as many as 400 Arab villages were destroyed or taken over by the Israelis. Most such incidents occurred during the 1948 war, but some occurred in connection with Six-Day War of 1967.

The head of an association for reconstructing Emmaus, a destroyed Arab village, said in a letter published by the Jerusalem Post recently that without justice, there will be no Arab-Israeli peace. And "justice . . . implies the right of the Palestinians to return to their villages and lands and reconstruct those villages which have been destroyed," the letter said.

Arens argued that the experiences of Ikrit and Biram were unique and that whatever action Israel takes, those cases could not set a pattern for the future elsewhere.

Shamir Caters to Right

Shamir, however, has been currying favor with the right to fend off Peres and has put Arens' proposal on the shelf, disappointing the former residents of the two villages one more time.

"If Shamir doesn't agree, I don't think there will be results," attorney Shukry said. "It makes me sad that I've been a loyal citizen of this country for 40 years, but I can't get what's rightfully mine because I'm Arab. If they would let us return to Biram, it would show that Jews and Arabs are equal."

Ironically, the historic ruins indicated here on Israeli maps are not those of the Maronite Church or the Arab village but of a 3rd-Century Jewish synagogue that, according to a tourist sign, "reflects the high standard of religious and cultural life maintained by the Jews of this region even after the destruction of the (Jerusalem) Temple" by the Romans in AD 70.

The synagogue ruins were near the center of the Arab village, recalled Shukry, who is 48. "Some people say it was a Roman temple and not a Jewish temple," he said, adding that it made no difference to the villagers.

Loosens Up at Site

Shukry, who had appeared tense and formal during an earlier interview in his Nazareth office and the hourlong drive north to Biram, was visibly transformed as he showed three visitors around the site. The lines of his face relaxed, and there was a hint of youthful excitement in his voice as he pointed out the ruins of the church school, where he had studied, and the narrow passageways between what had been the stone walls of houses where he played.

"When I come here I feel completely different," Shukry conceded. "When I'm here I can forget everything."

There is a steady, fresh breeze here that makes the temperature several degrees cooler than it is a few miles south. "This is part of Lebanon!" the attorney explained.

Can See Into Lebanon

It's possible to see into Lebanon from the roof of the church. And when the church bell peals to call Biram's residents to regular Sunday services and other special feasts, Shukry said, "From Lebanon, they say our friends and family from Biram are praying."

When it was evacuated, according to Shukry, Biram had about 1,000 residents. Today, he said, the survivors and their offspring number more than 2,500.

"The entire village saw itself as one family," he recalled. "This is how we lived. This is how we grew up."

And when they return nowadays and sit on those battered old folding chairs, the feeling is much the same, Shukry said. "We would rather sit on chairs like this than on a sofa. They bring us back to the good old days."

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