And all they left us was the church

In 1953 the Israelis destroyed the Christian village of Biram. Its people want it back.

"First we heard the sound of explosions. We ran to the top of a hill and in the distance we saw dust rising from Biram," says George Akl of the day in 1953 when he watched the Israeli air force, supported by demolition squads on the ground, systematically destroy the Christian Palestinian village of Biram in northern Israel.

The bitterness of its people over the loss of their homes is, if anything, more intense than that of Palestinians from the other 385 villages taken and usually destroyed by Israel after its declaration of independence in 1948. For half a century they feel they have fought by Israeli rules for the right to return, but without result. Father Bishara Soliman, a priest from Biram, says: "Never has a stone been thrown at an Israeli soldier by any of us."

In 1948 an Israeli military commander told the 1,000 people in Biram, who belonged to the Maronite Christian church, to leave their well-built stone houses for two weeks because of fighting in the area. "When the Israeli army entered the village we were very afraid for our young people because we had heard of massacres," says Abu Yusuf, now 85, but then a young teacher. "They gave us 48 hours to leave the village for two weeks. We slept under the trees."

After a fortnight the villagers asked to return, but were told to be patient. Many went to live in the neighbouring Palestinian village of Jish, from which they could see their old homes. In 1952 the people from Biram, along with a neighbouring Christian village called Ikrit, won an appeal in the Israeli High Court, which said they could go back to their homes, if the army authorised it. Instead the army demolished Biram in 1953, watched by its former inhabitants in Jish, many in tears, from a spot they still call "the hill of weeping.".

Only the church in Biram survived, along with a half-destroyed school building. For almost 50 years they have been the focus of the villagers' collective memory and sense of identity, which has become more intense with the years. "We have baptisms, weddings and funerals there," says Father Soliman. "The majority of people from Biram get married in the church." In the cramped cemetery nearby he shows the grave of a man from Biram, who had become a successful doctor in the US, but had directed that his body should be buried where he was born.

In one sense the villagers were fortunate. Israel had declared the site of the village a national park which cannot be built on, because it contains the site of a third-century Jewish synagogue. Even so, when the priest tried to rebuild part of the wrecked school in 1972, the army knocked down the new walls. "Since then we cannot put one stone on another," said Father Soliman, who was arrested at the time.

The young, born in Jish or Israeli cities such as Haifa and Akko, identify with Biram as much as those who were born there. For 10 years they have attended an annual summer camp in its ruins. "We have 170 boys and girls between the ages of six and 18," says Edmond Badini, an English teacher from Akko who helps organise it. "Each part of the group names itself after a spring or a wadi in Biram. Old people tell them about what happened in 1948." Seeking to flesh out the life of the old village, Mr Badini points to the tumbled walls and adds: "We used to have two schools, three shops and a cafe. It was a rich village." A bizarre aspect of the long campaign by the people of Biram and Ikrit is that, in contrast to their rejection of any overall Palestinian right of return, Israeli leaders have frequently admitted the injustice of what happened to them. Father Soliman says: "Every Israeli prime minister, with the exception of Golda Meir, has told us that we should go back to our village." Even Hanan Porat, a leader of the far right, once admitted: "The [Israeli] government in this case, through its armed forces, has promised to let them return." The reason why promises of redress were broken so often is probably because of Israel's fear of setting a precedent.

Between 1948 and 1953 some 83 per cent of the Palestinians in Israel - over 700,000 people - were forced from their homes, either by direct expulsion or from fear of being engulfed by the fighting. None were allowed to return. In his memoirs Yitzhak Rabin, later Israel's prime minister, records how he organised the expulsion of 50,000 Palestinian civilians from Lydda (today named Lod) and Ramlah, south-east of Tel Aviv. The Israeli historian Benny Morris says that in Lydda alone between 250 and 300 men, women and children were massacred.

Israel has always been adamant that the Palestinian refugees from this era should not be allowed to return. The people of Biram and Ikrit argue their case is different. They say that unlike other Palestinians they were promised they could return and the Israeli High Court supported them.

A further motive for Israeli opposition to the return of the refugees to Biram is simply that others want the land once farmed by them. A kibbutz has been built at Baram and there is another settlement at Dovev. Yacob Zohar, a founder of Baram, says the kibbutzniks of 1949 pioneered a wilderness: "We had to take stones from the fields. We planted trees. There was no water here." In contradiction the Palestinians from Biram speak nostalgically of their well-watered fruit orchards, and their claim to lost prosperity is born out by the ruins of once-solid houses.

An Israeli ministerial committee proposed last year that some villagers from Biram and Ikrit could go back to part of their land. Father Soliman says: "At Biram they offered us just 600 donums [150 acres] when we used to have 12,500. We would not own the land, but rent it. They said only fathers of families from 1948 could return with two children. We would not be allowed to farm or start a factory there."

The offer was rejected. "We would have had to sign a document saying our grievances were satisfied," said one refugee from Biram. "And that we would never do."

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