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Palestinians are holding weddings, baptisms, burials in villages destroyed by Israel

Third-generation survivors of the Nakba are returning to the churches in the villages Israel destroyed in 1948 to hold religious ceremonies.

By Suha Arraf

On Easter Monday in the displaced Palestinian village of Iqrit, residents dance around the town's church, April 21, 2014. (Activestills.org)

On Easter Monday in the displaced Palestinian village of Iqrit, residents dance around the town’s church, April 21, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Just over two weeks ago, Khaled Bisharat, son of famed journalist and author Odeh Bisharat, was married in a church in the village of Ma’alul. It was a wedding like any other, apart from one fact: Ma’alul, which lies just four miles southwest of Nazereth, was destroyed by Israel in the 1948 war, and most of its displaced residents fled to the town of Yafa an-Naseriyye.

The wedding is part of a trend: third-generation survivors of the Nakba are returning to their destroyed villages to hold religious ceremonies, including baptisms, weddings, and burials.

“I think that there will be a trend of holding weddings there,” said Odeh Bisharat. “My son is the second person to get married in Ma’alul. A week earlier, someone from the Salem family was married in the church, and there will be several more weddings in the village.”

Bisharat said that the decision was entirely Khaled’s.

Returning to Iqrit

Haitham Sbeit, 30, was born to a family that was expelled from the village of Iqrit and now lives in Haifa. Two months ago, he held his wedding at the church in Iqrit. “It’s not even a question for me, it’s very obvious,” said Sbiet. “I am a son of Iqrit. Iqrit is everything for me. Ever since I remember myself, I have been there every year for summer camp, Christmas and Easter ceremonies, and burials of family members and others. All my life I have been hoping to return there.”

Sbeit’s family history revolves around Iqrit. “My parents are refugees. They were born in Iqrit, moved to Rameh, and then to Haifa. I was born in Haifa, they then moved to Nazareth, and a year ago they moved to Tarshiha – as close as possible to our home in Iqrit,” he said. “We are refugees, moving time and time again.”

Sbeit took his partner Lina, a social worker originally from the village of Eilaboun, on a third date to Iqrit. “If the person I am going to spend my life with does not understand what Iqrit means to me and can’t feel what I feel, she is not right for me,” said Sbeit. “It’s a kind of test, and I was happy that Lina fell in love with the place and became an activist there.”

Sbeit is not the first person in his family to take his partner on a date in Iqrit. His uncle, George, took Shadia, who would later become his wife, on a date there over 25 years ago.

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Shadia Sbeit, 47, who lives in the village of Kafr Yasif, remembers the day like it was yesterday. “I took all the clothes out of my closet to look for something nice to wear,” she said. “I wore my fancy leather boots. I was so excited because I hardly knew George. I liked him and wanted the relationship to work. He picked me up and we started driving north. I thought he was taking me to a romantic restaurant, he didn’t tell me where we were going.”

At a certain point, George stopped the car and Shadia found herself in an abandoned village, marching toward a church. “It was winter, and I was wearing my leather boots,” recalled Shadia. “I stepped in manure but continued marching up the hill until we got to the church. George told me excitedly about the place. It was at that moment that I understood that this was central to his life. I fell in love with the place and the people there, and since then I have become an activist who takes foreigners on tours of the area, I help run the summer camp, and take part in the ceremonies.”

Haitham Sbeit and his wife, Lina, on their wedding day, in Iqrit. (Habib Massad)

Haitham Sbeit and his wife, Lina, on their wedding day, in Iqrit. (Habib Massad)

Sbeit describes how his wife’s family, who is from Eilabun and has never been to a depopulated Palestinian village before, was just as emotional as his family at the wedding ceremony. “We decorated the church, then danced dabkeh in the courtyard, and drank arak and whiskey,” recalled Sbeit. “The site of the depopulated village with the ruins and the trees was astounding. On one side, you see the border with Lebanon, and on the other side you see the sea,” he said. “My dad and uncle had to beg the guests to leave the village and go to the party hall.”

Suheil Khoury, second generation to the Nakba and originally from Iqrit, lives in Nazareth today. He has been serving as a priest since 1987 and today preaches at the church in Tur’an, just north of Nazareth. He volunteers to officiate the weddings, funerals, and baptisms for the residents of his home village.

He said the first wedding to take place in Iqrit after the Nakba was in 1972 under a fig tree, because Israeli police prevented the ceremony from happening at the church. Since then, the church has been renovated, and couples have been able to get married there.

“We have buried at least 150 Iqrit residents at the village graveyard from the time I became a priest,” said Khoury. For him, opening the gates of the church is his contribution to the community. “This is the only home we have left,” he said.

Other than Christmas and Easter, he holds a church service there the first Saturday of every month. “The three most important phases in a person’s life are birth, marriage and death. It’s important for us to be able to experience all three in our village.”

‘We don’t want to return to our village in a casket’

The phenomenon of holding weddings, funerals and holiday services exists not only in Iqrit and Ma’alul — which are only two of 531 villages that Israel destroyed upon its founding in 1948 — but in other destroyed villages, like Bir’im, al-Bassa and many others.

Khoury’s dream of returning to the village, which many of the village elders share, came true seven years ago when a group of young Palestinians decided to go back and live in the church – the only building that survived the Nakba. Sbeit was one of those behind the idea: “Our summer camps here played a significant role in shaping our consciousness, as third generation to the Nakba,” he said. “Every year, we would sleep, eat, study and play there for an entire week.”

Then, seven years ago, after a successful summer camp session, they decided to make their presence permanent. “We told ourselves ‘Enough, we can’t keep crying over ruins, we have to do something,’” said Sbiet. “We created a Facebook group named ‘Iqrit’ and decided to return. We started, [a group of] 15 young men and women, to sleep at the church. Each person would go to work or university and then return to Iqrit. There was no electricity. We used candles and a generator. It was difficult. We started taking shifts so that there are at least three of us there every night.”

On Easter Monday, generations of the displaced Palestinian village of Iqrit celebrate mass in the town's church, the only building to remain standing. April 21, 2014. (Activestills.org)

On Easter Monday, generations of the displaced Palestinian village of Iqrit celebrate mass in the town’s church, the only building to remain standing. April 21, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Sbeit’s first religious ceremony in Iqrit was in 2001 at his grandmother’s funeral. The day of her burial is etched in his memory and has become a formative event. “I will never forget the sight of my father, uncles and the village elders crying. We opened the casket and they sprinkled dirt on her face and clothes. The priest said a prayer and then they closed the casket. I was a kid and didn’t understand the meaning of returning there only when you’re dead. My friends and I decided that we will not go back in caskets, only to be buried there. We wanted to return while we are still alive, and this is what ended up happening.”

Shadia, Haitham’s aunt, explains that the burial in Iqrit has solved a real problem for the residents of the village. Many, who now live in Rameh, Kafr Yasif and Haifa, had difficulty in finding burial spaces in the cities they fled to. “We are refugees, after all, and the burial grounds belong to the original residents. People were doing us a favor by offering us a grave. Even in our death, we remain refugees.”

Shadia herself had her kids baptized in Iqrit 10 years ago, and one day they will also get married there. “Our parents, who experienced the occupation and became refugees, feared Israel. They instilled this fear in us. When I went to university, they constantly urged me not to get involved politically, or else I wouldn’t find a job. The third generation to the Nakba is braver, fearless. They are better educated, and engage with Israelis at eye level.”

Sbeit reaffirms Shadia’s statement. “We are not afraid,” he said. “We have the right to return to our village, and it’s every refugee’s right to return to where they are from. Nobody understands what it’s like to be displaced from your land, to be left hanging, waiting on other people’s favors to find a place to live or to be buried. It’s like a scar that never heals,” he said. “I will be the first to build a house in Iqrit, as soon as the legal matter is settled.”

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew, on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      It is nice that they found a free wedding hall for their weddings and cheap burial plots. Both are expensive in Israel.

      But, they are not from Iqrit. Unless the people in this story are older than 70 years old they are all from elsewhere. They should probably get used to wherever they live now because Iqrit isn’t getting rebuilt. No need to thank me for this useful tip.

      Reply to Comment
      • Peter Beck

        I don’t think this third generation of Palestinian refugees pays any attention to Zionist apologists like yourself. There is always hope that, like South Africa, apartheid Israel will be reborn as something better than the miserable failure that it is today. Without the American taxpayer propping it up, Israel is nothing.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          “Third generation of Palestinian refugees”

          No. Just no. Their grandparents were at best internally displaced people as they didn’t have to leave the country. They were Arabs, not Palestinians as the Palestinian identity didn’t exist until the 1960s. And they can’t be the third generation of refugees because they are full citizens of a country as were their parents and grandparents. So they might pay no attention and that is entirely their right as citizens of a free country but they are most certainly not the ‘third generation of Palestinian refugees’.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Firentis: “they are full citizens of a country“

            But they are not. The nation state law codified what everyone knows. They are not full citizens. If they were, as Jews are, they would not be told they can’t build in Iqrit and a thousand other places. You contradict yourself. Not one new community for Arab citizens of Israel has been built since the founding of the state, while over 300 have been built for Jews. And the existing Arab towns are kept from expanding. You can’t finesse this. They are NOT “full citizens.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Peter Beck

            Wow Firentis, chapter and verse from the Hasbara Handbook. “A land without people for a people without land.” Does it have an answer for the regular Friday sniper shootings at the Gaza fence? You know, where they use expanding bullets designed to maximize amputations? The deliberate fouling of water in Palestinian villages by settlers? Their vandalism of property including many thousands of Olive trees? Last week’s demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem? If they were “full citizens,” they could take these “settler” criminals to court. You may want to suggest to your Zionist overlords an update to their handbook. The sheer nonsense within its pages doesn’t fly anymore.

            Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Israel a failure? No, a huge success in every way: a flaming economy, a low unemployment, No. 1 in high technology, medicine, agriculture, etc. The American taxpayer? The US is giving Israel $ 3 billion a year to buy exclusive US equipment (remember that Israel’s GNP is more than $ 331 billion in 2017). American payments are an excellent investment for the USA since the State of Israel is the only reliable US ally in the region. Finally, let’s remember that our birth rate is higher than that of Egypt and that of our minorities. I correct you: the State of Israel is a success that surpasses our wildest dreams.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Itshak Gordine Halevy: The American Southern plantation slave economy was also a huge success lucre-wise for the plantation masters. While it lasted. The South loved it. And wrote the same kind of cocky, romantic paeans to the lifestyle and the culture then that you do for Jewish religious-nationalist culture now. And believe me, they too deeply believed they had God on their side.
            As I recall, however, that didn’t turn out too well in the end. (Neither did South African Apartheid.) And when one visits the Antebellum plantations today one sees the aesthetic beauty of the lifestyle for the masters. But it was all built on a deeply evil system. It now looks from this vantage point like the unsustainable Disneyland that it was, built on the backs of a whole other people’s terrible suffering. This is how people will look back on national-religious settler culture.

            Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        An excellent point, Firentis.
        Those under age 70, come from somewhere else.

        Returning to Israel after a 2 week vacation, I see 972 mag is stil posting its usual nonsense. Moreover, the same talkbackers (ie Ben, Bruce, Amir etc) are still haunting the comments section, boldly revising Israeli history amd posting their loony leftist ideologies.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: You’re “from” Israel?

        Reply to Comment
      • Destiny

        Good point you have Firentis …now can you explain to me why this settlers claim to belong to a land that was supposedly inhabited by their ancestors from thousands years ago? Isn’t that shockingly disturbing and delusional to think that German polish Austrian American and many more crazy people who have no connection to Palestine can just show up and say I’m Jew and steal Palestinians rights.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          No people have lived as long as the Jewish people on the land of Israel. The others have just passed. Which “Palestinian” rights? There has never been an Arab state of “Palestine” (name given by the Romans to this land after chasing the Jewish people.

          Reply to Comment
          • Amir

            @ishaq there is nothing like “jewish people” or “land of israel”. Torah or talmud are not a real estate.
            Do you also claim a kingdom during neolithique or pretend cro magnon man was jew?

            israelites vanished kingdoms are just a details in history compared to the thousands year old history of Palestine. History didn’t start with so called “kindgdom of david”

            Several Palestinian cities are older than your religion and claims. Most Palestinian cities have been continuously inhabited for thousands of years.
            There is neither no records of mass movement of population from Arabia to Palestine nor a replacement of population.
            It is the same for modern Egyptians. There are not just Arabs who migrated and replaced the Coptic people

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Repeated Lies: The “Palestinians” are a recent creation and have nothing to do with the Philistines who are a people of Greek origin now extinct. The “Palestinians” are a mixture of Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and even the Maghreb, and ignorant or dishonest people try to make it seem like these people are the descendants of the Philistines, an ancient people , now extinct probably assimilated by the tribes of Israel

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            No, Amir. Neolithic people are not Jewish. We are Jewish only if our mother is Jewish or if we converted according to the laws of Orthodox Judaism. We are not like the Muslims, probably aware of the weakness of their origins, who have made of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon and many other Muslims.

            Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Indeed, they have no connection to ‘Palestine’. They have a connection to the land of Israel which is the historical and religious homeland of Jewish people who were and remained Jews long before such things as ‘Austrian’, ‘German’, ‘Polish’, ‘American’, and most certainly ‘Palestinian’ were invented.

          It is indeed shockingly disturbing how Jews conveniently rhetorically became ‘German’, ‘Polish’ and ‘Austrian’ shortly after they were massacred in the millions for not being ‘German’, ‘Polish’ or ‘Austrian’.

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Firentis: Sure, that Nation-State Law is merely a “declaratory” trifle! Don’t worry! But…because they’re Arab…they can’t move to Iqrit and they can’t build there! Or a lot of other places. But Jews can! Not one new community for Palestinian citizens of Israel has been built since the establishment of the state, while several hundreds have been built for Jews; Arab citizens are discriminated against every which way possible in regards to land, housing and resources; not isolated instances of racism, it is systematic and structural. But don’t worry! We have the very best intentions with that law! Yesirree! That Nation State law is merely ‘declaratory’. Totally benign and so democratic in our trustworthy hands! And only morons don’t understand this!

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Iqrit was evacuated in 1948. The Nation State Basic Law was passed in 2018. Iqrit wasn’t ‘rebuilt’ between 1948-2018 and it won’t be rebuilt after 2018.

          So, yeah, the Nation State Law changed nothing and is primarily declarative. One would really have to be a moron to argue that the Iqrit case demonstrates that the Nation State Law changes something.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Firentis: Since I didn’t argue that, then I guess that makes me not a moron. Next time try addressing what I said and not resorting to a straw man argument. You several times have done this now, obviously putting words in people’s mouths.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      Breaking news: Yair Golan, Deputy IDF Chief, has entered politics:

      “…the new party, in the merger agreement signed by each faction, commits to three key principles that place it firmly on the left: seeking out a peace deal with the Palestinians on the basis of the two-state solution; not joining a right-wing government; and canceling the controversial Jewish nation-state law passed last year, which enshrines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and was criticized by minority groups for failing to include a commitment to equality for all Israeli citizens.”

      https://www.timesofisrael.com/a-generals-warning-yair-golan-says-only-democratic-camp-can-mend-israels-ills/

      Canceling the controversial Jewish nation-state law.

      Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordine

      It is very nice to organize parties in ruins. When I was young in Switzerland I attended rock concerts and shows at Aventicum (Avenches) in the Canton of Vaud. This village is home to the ruins of a Roman theater.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Sorry to disturb your idyll, overlord, but shall we have a look at the Swiss position?

        Switzerland and the occupied Palestinian territory
        Middle East conflict: Switzerland’s position

        Switzerland is committed to a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution. It recognises the state of Israel according to the 1967 lines and is committed to the establishment of a viable, contiguous and sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital based on the 1967 borders. Switzerland considers the territories controlled or annexed by Israel and located beyond the 1967 borders to be occupied as defined under international humanitarian law. It also considers the Israeli settlements to be illegal under international humanitarian law and a major obstacle to peace and the implementation of the two-state solution.
        https://www.eda.admin.ch/countries/occupied-palestinian-territory/en/home/representations/swiss-cooperation-office-gaza-&-west-bank/representative-office/konflikt-im-nahen-osten–haltung-der-schweiz.html

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          “…The Israeli settlements (the settlements) are illegal according to international humanitarian law (article 49(6) of the fourth Geneva Convention) and constitute a gross violation of human rights, in particular with regards to the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people as well as its right to self-determination. Switzerland also considers the settlements to be a major obstacle to peace and the implementation of the two-state solution. This position has notably been affirmed in UN Security Council resolution 2334. 
          Economic and financial activities linked to the settlements in the occupied Arab territories may not receive any support from Switzerland…

          The building of the separation barrier, inasmuch as it deviates from the “Green Line”, contravenes international law (“Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”, Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, 9 July 2004). Switzerland is therefore opposed to such a construction in the occupied Palestinian territory, as well as all expropriations or demolitions undertaken to this end….

          Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          “Switzerland therefore does not recognise as legal the establishment or existence of settlements in the occupied Arab territories. Consequently:
          1. It does not recognise Israeli authority beyond the 1967 borders.
          2. It cannot conclude treaties with Israel which concern the territories it controls beyond the 1967 borders.
          3. It does not apply existing bilateral treaties between Switzerland and Israel in territories beyond the 1967 borders.
          4. It does not conduct official relations with Israel in territories beyond the 1967 borders (except in specific cases of need); this concerns in particular the establishment of diplomatic missions or the sending of consular agents, as well as any activity or visit in the company of representatives of the Israeli authorities on the territories in question.
          5. It discourages natural persons or legal entities from participating in any manner whatsoever in settlement activities.”

          Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            You are totally off topic. The village of Maalul (?) Is located in the borders before 1967. That being said they are very numerous the Swiss who live in Judea and Samaria. Part of the Jewish youth of Switzerland who makes their aliyah live in these provinces. From me to you, what the Swiss government thinks is of no importance.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Halevy, since when are your teen rock concerts in Switzerland on topic?

            You’re fond of telling us how the lessons of Switzerland apply to the occupied territories. You maintain that “minorities” must “obey our laws” just like in Switzerland. And if they “follow our laws they can stay.” Just like Switzerland. So you have said.

            Tell me, Halevy, if minorities in Switzerland are just like “minorities” in Israel and the territories it occupies, then why did the Swiss let you travel to that concert in the ruins in the first place?
            Do the Swiss put up flying checkpoints to screen out Jews and subject them to humiliating and arbitrary harassment?
            Did the Swiss army invade your family’s house at 3AM and drag your father out of bed to practice on him?
            Did the Swiss army ever detain you without due process and refuse to notify your parents or to let you call them?
            Did the Swiss occupy your property and concoct a reason to make it a “closed military zone” so they could take your property from you but left the same land open to white Christian Swiss?
            Did the Swiss ever burn down your trees and feign incompetence in rounding up the perps?
            Did the Swiss ever severely limit your water supply while filling their own swimming pools next door?
            Did the Swiss ever refuse your father a permit to build because your family is Jewish and then tear down the house he built without the permit they refused to ever give him?
            Did the Swiss ever do this in a Swiss “Area A and B” like Sur Baher, where you like to say the Palestinians are under the full jurisdiction of the PA but yet Israel tears down houses whenever it feels like it?
            Did the Swiss ever notify you that you had no path to Swiss citizenship because you are a Jew and “a minority”?
            Did the Swiss ever pass a nation state law stipulating that they are the nation state of the white Christian Swiss People and call Swiss Christian settlement in northern Italy a national value?
            Do the Swiss German-speaking cantons ever tell the French and Italian-speaking cantons that German is the Übersprache and codify that in a Swiss law?
            Did the Swiss ever make it illegal to advocate boycotting Swiss chocolate, cheese or ski equipment?
            Did the American government ever try to make it illegal for Americans to exercise the free speech calling for boycotting Nestlé for marketing infant formula in the third world?
            Why do the Americans of late behave this way?
            Hint:
            The Real Reason So Many Republicans Love Israel? Their Own White Supremacy.
            https://forward.com/opinion/428488/the-real-reason-so-many-republicans-love-israel-their-own-white-supremacy/

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            I was simply writing about the beauty of rock concerts in ruins. Some did it in Pompei. To come back to Switzerland, this has suspended its payments to UNWRA, which is a real money extortionist. As for the Swiss Foreign Minister, Mr. Ignacio Cassis, he protested against artificially maintaining generations of “Palestinian” refugees by giving them funds extorted from the Swiss taxpayer.
            Finally, of course, minorities must respect the laws in force in a country, or leave if that does not suit them. It is the same everzwhere in the world.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            What could be more obnoxious than your constant theme of “minorities respecting laws in a country” when (1) the occupied territories are not Israel’s country, (2) Israel constantly massively violates settled customary international law regarding protected persons under occupation, acting as a recalcitrant, outlaw minority among nations, (3) Israel maintains an apartheid system of two sets of laws based on ethnicity, and uses these two sets to brutally cheat and subjugate one ethnicity, (4) Israel almost never enforces its own laws against its settler miscreants, in fact has its soldiers looking on or looking away, (5) Israel says the Palestinians of Area A and B are under full Palestinian jurisdiction under the law of the Oslo Accords (you never tire of saying this falsehood) and yet marches into Area A and B under a land-grabbing concocted “security” pretext and has it soldiers tear down houses while laughing at the people whose houses it tears down, (6) Israel abuses its own military laws by decreeing concocted, fake “closed military zones” in order to take more land, (7) Etc., etc., etc.? I could go on, as you know. There is plenty else.
            The very LAST thing we need from a lawbreaking settler like you Halevy, is an insufferable lecture on following laws.

            Reply to Comment
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