I seldom subject myself to the offerings of commentator Moshe Arens when they appear periodically in Haaretz newspaper: Heartburn. He’s the sort of columnist — like peace-nik Gershon Baskin in the Jerusalem Post — invited in on occasion to demonstrate the “balance” exercised by a media outlet that leans decidedly the other way.
Moshe Arens came to this country in 1948, quickly joined the Jewish terrorist organization Irgun, and later helped found the Herut political party that grew out of it. His career has encompassed aeronautical engineering, research, and diplomacy and politics, including service in the Knesset, as a government minister, and as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Arens currently chairs the Board of Governors of a controversial “university” established in the illegal West Bank settlement of Ariel.
Anyway, this time Moshe Arens caught me off guard, because what he’s proposing is that the State of Israel make good on promises made 65 years ago to the former residents of two Arab villages in Upper Galilee, people deprived of their homes and lands for no good reason.
Perhaps the names “Biram” and “Iqrit” don’t resonate with you (note: both have variant spellings and/or pronunciations). Maybe, though, you’re familiar with “Bar’am“, whose impressive ancient synagogue sits within an Israeli national park site. Well, not too many steps away lie the sad remains of a once-thriving modern village, plus its sole surviving structure, a church: Bar’am is Biram.
Also, some of you may know the name of Father Elias Chacour, founder of the Mar Elias Educational Institutions, head of the Melkite (Greek Catholic) community in this part of the world, and repeated nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the fields of peace education and reconciliation. Father Chacour is from Biran and well remembers the trauma of his family’s uprooting so many years ago, recounted poignantly in his 1984 book, Blood Brothers. By the way, Iqrit, the lesser-known village which suffered the same fate, lies about 12 miles to the west along Road 899.
And why is Arens almost right? Because his rationale is not that the Israeli Army was carrying out an aggressive war of conquest in areas not assigned to a Jewish state by the Partition Plan; not that the 1948 expulsion of the villages’ people was a cynical ruse in the first place, not that they were blatantly lied to throughout, not that the destruction of their homes a few years later was a despicable crime against humanity. And, for Arens, the refusal by decades of successive governments to restore these internally-displaced Israeli citizens to their villages — a right upheld multiple times by Israel’s own High Court of Justice — is not morally reprehensible but, as a matter of policy, simply illogical and foolish.
No, the correction of this wrong is called for because — wonder of wonders — these people have consistently demonstrated that they are are “friends” of the State of Israel! The State of Israel, whose welfare and image are the measure of all things. Even if he has no regard for these people’s fundamental human rights, even if he could never bring himself to do the right thing for its own sake, let it be said that Moshe Arens possesses a sense of honor toward Israel’s “friends”.
As for the people of Biram and Iqrit, after 65 years of waiting and hoping, they’ll likely embrace whatever backhanded expressions of goodwill are extended to them — even by someone like him.
(A side note, 03 OCT 2013: COULD IT HAPPEN, the restoration at long last of the two villages? Yes, it could happen: The State of Israel does actually sometimes do the right and decent thing — when it is forced to. For evidence, see HERE on the return of some 500 acres of Palestinian land decades after it was stolen from them. With a bit of publicity, a bit of pressure from the US government, and perhaps the involvement (yet again) of the courts, it could happen.)
The article on Biram and Iqrit is reproduced in full below and found on-line HERE.
Israel’s shameful policy toward its few Christian friends
Sixty-five years after promising the Christian residents of Biram and Ikrit the right to return to their Galilee villages, the Israeli government is still failing to keep its word.
Sixty-five years have passed since the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Hiram cleared the Upper Galilee, in October 1948, driving the forces of the Arab Liberation Army led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji into Lebanon, and occupying the villages of Biram and Ikrit, whose villagers offered no resistance. They were asked to evacuate the villages and promised that they could return once security had been established in the area.
The villagers followed the order to evacuate, but the promise was not kept. Three years later the IDF blew up the houses in both villages, leaving only the churches standing. They still stand today, a mute reminder of a promise not kept.
Over the years, numerous appeals to the Supreme Court, government inquiry commissions, demonstrations and protests have produced no results. The promise is still broken, and justice has not been served. The inhabitants of Biram and Ikrit are still waiting.
Anyone seeking some degree of logic in the refusal of successive Israeli governments to honor the promise made will struggle to find it. Operation Hiram established security in the area. On March 29, 1949, Israel and Lebanon signed an armistice agreement and the IDF – which had penetrated into Lebanon – withdrew to the international border. For years, peace reigned in the area. But the villagers were not allowed to return.
As the years went by, the policy pursued by Israeli governments on the matter can only be described as a “march of folly.” The villagers of Biram are Maronite Christians; the villagers of Ikrit Greek Catholics. Both religious sects are considered friendly to Israel, and many of their young men volunteer for service in the IDF. That expression of loyalty is evidently not sufficient.
When the Palestine Liberation Organization set up a quasi-state in southern Lebanon in the late 1960s and carried out terrorist activities against Israel from there, it was natural that members of the Christian community in southern Lebanon saw their interests aligned with those of Israel.
In 1975, Maj. Saad Haddad, a Greek Catholic officer in the Lebanese army, took over command of military units in southern Lebanon (named the Free Lebanon Army), which coordinated its activities with the IDF. In 1984, Antoine Lahad, a Maronite general in the Lebanese army, took command of the South Lebanese Army – composed largely of Christian, but also Shia and Sunni soldiers and officers.
Until the unilateral withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon in 2000, it was (Israeli ally) the SLA which, in coordination with the IDF, secured the area north of Biram and Ikrit. There were no security concerns that might preclude the return of the villagers to their homes. Nevertheless, they did not receive permission from the Israeli government to return.
It was the unilateral withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon, without adequate coordination with the SLA, which added the shame of betrayal of an ally – who had fought alongside the soldiers of the IDF for years – to the broken promise to the villagers of Biram and Ikrit.
The officers and soldiers of the SLA, many of them Maronites and Greek Catholics, were abandoned to their fate. Some succeeded in escaping to Israel, leaving their property and sometimes even their families behind. Israel’s subsequent shabby treatment of these fighters, who tied their fate to Israel, is a shameful episode in itself.
How to explain this treatment of loyal allies by the State of Israel? Is this a deliberate policy of the Israeli government toward its Christian friends? Is this likely to encourage others to tie their fate to Israel? The answer to these questions will be found in the hills of Galilee at the sites of Biram and Ikrit. The villagers, and many of Israel’s citizens with them, await the answer.
EXTRA / November 2018
Here’s a 4-min. video piece from the Franciscans profiling the connection that Maronite Christians still maintain to Biram and its historic church building, the only structure to escape the intentional destruction of the town by Israel in the wake of the 1948 war. VIEW THE VIDEO…