Walaa Sbait, 26, speaks during a tour of the church in the village of Iqrit in the Upper Galilee on May 13, 2013
Walaa Sbait, 26, speaks during a tour for foreign diplomats of the church, the only remaining structure in the village of Iqrit in the Upper Galilee on May 13, 2013. Sixty-five years after their ancestors were driven out during the Nakba, the "catastrophe" that befell Palestinians, Arab Israeli youths are returning to the village. © Jack Guez - AFP
Walaa Sbait, 26, speaks during a tour of the church in the village of Iqrit in the Upper Galilee on May 13, 2013
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Shatha Yaish, AFP
Last updated: May 15, 2013

Arab Israeli Nakba descendants return to village

Sixty-five years after their ancestors were driven out during the Nakba, the "catastrophe" that befell Palestinians, Arab Israeli youths are returning to the village of Iqrit in the Upper Galilee.

A small Catholic church is all that remains of the village their families fled in 1948 during the conflict that accompanied Israel's declaration of independence.

Palestinians and Arab Israelis on Wednesday mark what to them is the Nakba -- Arabic for "catastrophe" -- of the creation of the Jewish state and exodus of 760,000 of them from their homes.

Some 160,000 remained in what became Israel, and now they and their descendants number 1.35 million, making up nearly 20 percent of the Jewish state's population.

In August, dozens of Arab Israeli youths descended from the villagers who left Iqrit, located in the Upper Galilee near the Lebanese border, and camped out in the Christian village's church.

"Every year, we have a week-long summer camp during which we stay in Iqrit for a week and organise events about the Palestinian cause and identity," said one of the organisers Walaa Sbeit, a musician born in the northern city Haifa.

"After the last one, we decided to stay here," he told AFP from the makeshift camp comprised of mattresses, two portable toilets and two donkeys brought by the new residents.

"We have been here for 10 months now and remain steadfast, despite the cold and the heat."

Sbeit explained the camp works on a "shift system, because a lot of us are employees or students who have to go to work or school in different cities, but there is always someone here at the church".

"We have been harassed by the police and the Israel land authority," he said. "They even issued a restraining order for our donkeys."

The parish priest, Father Suheil Khoury, a second-generation descendant of those who left Iqrit, said he had to hold mass on Saturday "because everyone has to work on Sunday".

"We celebrated Easter here, we also have weddings and bury the dead here."

However, previous attempts to return to the village have had little success.

After the 1948 war, the Israeli army asked the inhabitants of Iqrit to leave their homes for two weeks, but the residents were never allowed to return.

In 1951, the Israeli supreme court ruled the villagers should be allowed to return to their homes, but the army demolished the houses at Christmas that year.

"After the 1951 ruling in favour of the villagers, the military issued restraining orders against them and in the 1980s, villagers returned to court, where the state argued there were security reasons that wouldn't allow the people of Iqrit to return," said Suhad Bishara, director of the land and planning unit at Arab-Israeli rights group Adalah.

"Following another appeal in the late 1990s, the state claimed that those security reasons were not valid after the peace agreements (with the Palestinians) but there were political reasons because of the negotiations with the Palestinians," she said.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for years.

Israel's supreme court rejected yet another appeal by the villagers to return to Iqrit in 2003.

"Israel didn't want to set a precedent in the right of return for Palestinians, which could set a dangerous precedent, and the court agreed to this and refused the appeals," added Bishara.

Israel is opposed to the notion of the return of Palestinian refugees, who today number 5.3 million, saying it would change the "Jewish character" of the state and should be applied to a future Palestinian state.

Palestinian negotiators argue the right of return would "not create an existential crisis for Israel".

But legal and political wrangling aside, the youth of Iqrit are already claiming a victory.

"Before achieving the right of return, we have realised ourselves," says Sbeit. "We have found our soul here."

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