'This is my house,' said 85-year-old Abu Ibrahim, his stocky bow-legs breaking into an excited trot as he guided our small group across a pile of rubble to point out what remained of his old home. 'I was born here, and so was my father, and his father.'

There was no sign of sadness on the old man's face - just a broad smile. 'It always makes us happy to breathe the air of Biram,' said one of the other elderly villagers, looking on. 'It makes us happy to think we will soon be able to come back. Now Israel is making peace with its neighbours it must make peace in its own house.'

The story of the neighbouring villages of Biram and Iqrit may not top the league table of injustices cited by Arabs, but there can be few other cases where the rights and wrongs are so clear. In 1952 the Israeli High Court ruled that the eviction of the villagers was unjust and that they should be allowed to go back. Since then Likud leaders, including the former prime minister Menachem Begin, have argued - in principle, at least - for their return.

On 13 November 1948 the inhabitants of Biram, an Arab Maronite Catholic village in northern Israel, two miles from the Lebanese border, were forced to leave. The mukhtar summoned his village elders to tell them that the Israeli army was ordering their evacuation. During the retreat of Arab forces after the war that followed the creation of Israel in 1948, thousands of Arab Muslims had fled this region of Galilee into Lebanon.

Christian villagers saw the Muslim refugees pass by, but stayed put. They knew that neither Muslims nor Jews cared much about them, and chose to welcome their new Israeli masters. 'We had helped the Jews entering Palestine before the war. We thought they would help us,' said their priest, Father Bishara Sulieman. For Israeli army commanders, however, the priority was to clear these northern reaches of all Arabs. Biram and Iqrit were simply in the way.

Israel trucked the villagers of Biram out to Jish, a Muslim Arab village five miles to the south, which was already half deserted by Arabs who had taken flight. The Israeli commanders promised the people of Biram that they could return home in two weeks, 'when the area was calm' - and the Arabs believed them. Before the evacuation the Israelis had taken a census in the village, giving each of its 1,050 inhabitants a number and granting them Israeli citizenship. Anticipating a speedy return, the villagers had tidied their homes, packing only a few belongings. But, along with the people of Iqrit, they were never allowed back.

In 1953 Biram was flattened by Israeli shells as its former residents watched from a hillside near Jish. Abu Ibrahim tends his flock of goats there. 'I lost everything, everything,' he says, 'except my goats.' Other villagers are now scattered across Israel. They are allowed back only for church services, to marry, and to bury their dead. Biram, which is the site of a 3rd-century Jewish synagogue, has been taken over by the Israel National Parks Authority: occasionally the villagers also return as 'tourists'.

Although 600,000 Arabs fled Israeli lands after the creation of the state, about 160,000 stayed behind. Now Israel has 1 million Arab citizens - a fifth of its population. The spurious security arguments once given for evacuating and destroying villages have long been discredited. With growing hopes this week that Israel will make peace with Syria and Lebanon, the case for 'Arab-free zones' along Israel's border with Lebanon will be well and truly buried.

Today the Israeli government makes no attempt to deny the justice of the villagers' case. But whether any administration will really prove willing to allow them to return is open to question. Villagers say that if Israel is ready to make peace with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, it must also be ready to 'make peace' with Arabs living in Israel itself.

'We are dealing here with two symbols of the attitude in Israel towards Arabs,' says Dedi Zucker, a left-wing Israeli member of parliament, who is campaigning for the villagers' return. 'For Israel, winning this battle would be healing an ideological wound.' Facing new pressure, the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has set up a committee of inquiry into the affair. But the fate of these villages cannot not be decided by reason and justice alone.

For many Israelis the names Biram and Iqrit raise the spectre of a universal Arab 'right of return'. Although their case is unique, many Israelis believe that allowing Arabs a right of return is a threat to the existence of their state. Today Iqrit and Biram; tomorrow Haifa and Jaffa.

'This is all our land,' said 75-year-old Elias Jacob, who used to be the teacher in Biram, as he hauled his creaking frame up a flight of steps to show us the view from the roof of the church - the only building unmarked by Israeli bombs. Forty years on, the hillside is still scarred, and across the wooded valley are the neat, pitched roofs of Israeli communities built on land belonging to Biram.

On the church roof, three young German tourists listened with puzzlement to the villagers' words. Their description of the scene did not match the glossy brochures handed out to the Germans at the entrance. 'The brochure doesn't tell us anything about this,' said Andreas, from Frankfurt, pointing to the ruins of the village. His leaflet described the ancient synagogue, with a drawing of what the reconstructed building would look like. Of the rest of the site the brochure simply said: 'Until 1948, Biram was a Maronite Christian village. During the War of Independence the villagers were evacuated and the site is now under the auspices of the National Parks Authority.'

'At least we don't have to pay to come in,' laughed one of the villagers, going back past the ticket booth. That the people of Biram and Iqrit are able to joke about their plight suggests a remarkable lack of bitterness. A minority within a minority, these Christian Arabs have always chosen pragmatism rather than direct confrontation, and with each compromise their weakness has been exploited. The Israeli army ignored the High Court order of 1952, turning the villages into closed military areas so that the residents could not go back. The villagers have watched helplessly as Israeli communities have been built on their land.

'We always had good relations with all the conquerors of Biram - the British, the Israelis,' said Father Bishara, without a trace of irony. 'We always hoped to live in peace with the Jews,' added Elias Jacob, standing in the remains of what was once his schoolyard. 'This was how our principles and our religion told us to behave, to treat the Jew as our friend.'

Some of the younger villagers believe that Israel always intended to transfer all Arabs out of the country. 'They want a Jewish state without Arabs. We were only ever going to be temporary citizens,' says Ibrahim Afif. But the elderly take a more generous view. 'Maybe they didn't want us here - I don't know. I think they just needed the land,' Mr Jacob says.

The villagers' latest compromise with Israel, which they hope will hasten their return, has been to give up their claim to the Biram lands taken by Israeli communities, saying they will be happy to go back and live on only a third of the 400 acres they orginally owned.

'Even if I never come back to my home, at least I will come back here one day,' says Abu Ibrahim, standing outside his family tomb. Around him the other villagers gather proudly in the overcrowded cemetery. At least they have won the right to return to Biram to bury their dead.

(Photographs omitted)