Israel's Racist Land Policies Remain Unchanged, Government Rejects Return of Internally Displaced Palestinian Villagers of Iqrit and Bir'am

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Israeli government deliberations about whether to respect a 1951 Israeli High Court ruling and allow Palestinian villagers of Iqrit and Bir'am to return to their homes and properties have finally come to and end. Yesterday, Israel's security cabinet decided against their return because of fifty-year-old "security concerns" and because it "would set a precedent for other displaced Palestinians who all demand to return to their homes and lands." Yesterday's cabinet decision shows that little has changed in Israel's racist land policies since 1971, when then Prime Minister Golda Me'ir issued a similar decision.

Residents of Iqrit and Bir'am and their descendents are part of the approximately 250,000 internally displaced Palestinians from some 60 displaced communities inside Israel. Although they are citizens of the state, they have been denied their right to return to their villages since 1948. Their lands have been confiscated, declared "state lands", and leased to Jewish-Israeli agricultural and urban settlements.

In 1948, the Israeli army requested the residents of Iqrit and Bir'am to leave their villages due to "security concerns" along the Lebanese border. Residents of the villages complied with the order after receiving assurances from the military that they were be permitted to return within 15 days. This promise, which ran counter to Israel's general policy at the time of creating Arab-free "security zones" along the borders of the state, was not kept. Some of the villagers were forced across the border into Lebanon. Following the 1951 ruling by the Israeli High Court that the residents of the two villages should be permitted to return, Israel's military government in the area obtained retroactive inclusion of the villages into the northern "security zone", issued expulsion orders, and destroyed the villages with explosives (Iqrit, 1951) and by aerial bombardment (Bir'am, 1953).

The recent government deliberations about Iqrit and Bir'am were launched under the Rabin government in 1995 by then Minister of Justice David Liba'i. Liba'i proposed to settle the case if the Palestinian residents of the villages agreed to, a) partial return (only heads of households accompanied by two descendents); b) to forgo land restitution (only a small parcel of land would be leased to returning households); and, c) not to engage in agriculture. This proposal was rejected by the villages, who by then numbered some 8,000 persons with claims to 36,972 dunums of land. In total, the government had offered to lease 1,200 dunums of the villagers' original land (about 3%) back to the returning households. In 1997 the residents of Iqrit re-filed their case with the Israeli High Court, however, the issue remained unresolved under the Netanyahu and Barak governments.

Yesterday's official response by the Israeli cabinet to the 1997 petition will be considered by the High Court in a hearing scheduled for early November 2001. This hearing will close, after fifty years, the first round of the domestic battle around Iqrit and Bir'am between the Israeli judiciary and the executive branch of the Israeli government. The prospects of a successful outcome for residents of Iqrit and Bir'am in the Israeli legal system are slim. At the same time, the Israeli government continues to confiscate land from its Palestinian citizens. Approximately half of the land that remained in the hands of Palestinian citizens of Israel after the 1948 war has been confiscated by the Israeli government, leaving a community that comprises 20% of the population of the country with access to only 3% of the land. Israel's official response to the Palestinian position of "land for land" in the context of negotiations over compensation for expropriated property, is illustrative of the state's racist land policy. In compensation for village land confiscated for the construction of the new Trans-Israel Highway project, for example, the Israeli government recently offered the Palestinian villages of Taybe and Tira land from a third Palestinian village, Zimar. A potential alternative route for the highway, rejected by the government, runs across land leased from the state by several kibbutzim which was confiscated from Taybe and Tira in the past (Arab Human Rights Association, Weekly Press Review-50; 9-10-2001; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

The cases of Iqrit and Bir'am, Taybe and Tira, and many other Palestinian villages inside Israel demonstrates the complete absence of adequate remedies for internally displaced and dispossessed Palestinians inside Israel. The response of the Israeli judiciary and successive governments to date constitute a blatant violation of international law. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, for example, which were developed to enhance protection and assistance for internally displaced persons, based on a review of relevant principles of international humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law, clearly affirm both the right of internally displaced persons to return to their homes or places of habitual residence (Principle 28), and the right to restitution of properties (Principle 29).

For further information, please contact:

Al-Awda movement/Bir'am village: Edward Jeries, secretary; tel: 00972-50-348909;
National Society for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel: Suleiman Fahmawi, spokesman; tel: 00972-6-6323294; (0)50-267679