Hanna Nasser is 81 years-old, 71 of which were lived in the expectation of returning to Iqrit, the Arab-Christian village in Galilee where he lived until the age of 10. That is, until, in November 1948, six months after the creation of the State of Israel, during the Arab-Israeli war, the army with the Star of David entered the village asking inhabitants to temporarily leave the village for two weeks owing to military operations in the area. Thus the entire the population of Iqrit, 500 people, were moved to the neighbouring village of Rameh.
But that was just the beginning of their exile. Two weeks became two years, and on July 31st, 1951, the inhabitants of Iqrit pleaded their case before Israel’s Supreme Court that ruled in favour of the right to return to their village. The army’s response was not long in coming, and it was harsh. That same year, on Christmas eve, Israeli soldiers ravaged the village, sparing only the small church devoted to the Holy Virgin and the small cemetery. The whole territory of the village was confiscated. The inhabitants of Iqrit became de facto refugees in their own homeland and were dispersed across various areas, in Haifa, Acre, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Rameh and other Israeli towns. The surrounding villages of Kafr Bir’im, Nabi Rubin and Tarbikha suffered a similar fate.
Since then their struggle to return has been relentless, and the villagers of Iqrit, like Hanna, along with their descendants, are determined to obtain justice. 71 years have passed and they continue gathering to pray in their church, burying the dead in the small cemetery and teaching the history of the village to their children and grandchildren.
Every day some of them guard over the remains of the village, consisting in heaps of rubble and ashes scattered outside the church, whose façade is enriched by a statue of the Virgin Mary adorned with a large Rosary. The prickly pear trees, with which local villagers used to mark their respective boundaries, live on. According to a local saying, the roots of prickly pear trees run so deep that they come back to life even if they are uprooted. After 71 years they bear witness to this saying. The surrounding landscape is lush and green despite the winter season. The Lebanese mountains loom up less than 60 km away. Behind the church, the native inhabitants of Iqrit have built a small structure that Israeli soldiers have tried to destroy on several occasions, but to no effect. An old sofa, a swing and a tent are the only ‘urban furnishings’ of the village.
Hanna comes here at least twice a week. After a lifetime spent in exile, working as a nurse in Jaffa and Haifa, he goes to Iqrit to recover that past he was stripped of by a war that is still being fought.
“I remember everything of those days of November 1948. I also remember the smoke that rose from the village on that Christmas eve, when our houses were set ablaze.” The suffering of that day is the same today. He asks us to follow him. A few dozen meters ahead, he walks at a steady pace on a steep trail. He is familiar with every inch, every stone and every pit. “I covered this tract a thousand times”, he says with the glimpse of a smile. He stops and proudly shows us a heap of stones. “This is what remains of my home. It hurts to see it destroyed and not be able to rebuild it. I come here almost every day because this is where I was born, where I lived. This is my life.
I will continue coming here whenever I can, until I have the strength to.”
Hanna doesn’t want to return to his village alone, as a dead man. The memory of this land must be passed on before anything else, and that’s why, he says, “I bring here with me my children and grandchildren. They need to know that the story of our family began here.”
You can’t sever your roots. There is a right to return that must be enforced. In this area villagers cherish the vivid memory of the story of a poet from Iqrit, Aouni Sbeit: while the villagers of Iqrit were protesting in front of the office of the Israeli Prime Minister, he said to a journalist: “if you put your ear up to the belly of a pregnant woman of Iqrit, you will here the infant saying that we shall return!”