A Palestinian wedding in Israel stirs memories of the 1948 expulsion of Arab inhabitants of Biram and Iqrit

The couple perform a traditional ritual in the ruins of the home of the groom’s grandparents in Biram. (Supplied)
1 / 2
The couple perform a traditional ritual in the ruins of the home of the groom’s grandparents in Biram. (Supplied)
The abandoned Maronite church in Biram, George Ghantous’s ancestral home. (Supplied)
2 / 2
The abandoned Maronite church in Biram, George Ghantous’s ancestral home. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 25 September 2021

A Palestinian wedding in Israel stirs memories of the 1948 expulsion of Arab inhabitants of Biram and Iqrit

A Palestinian wedding in Israel stirs memories of the 1948 expulsion of Arab inhabitants of Biram and Iqrit
  • Descendants of residents of the two villages view ceremonies in local churches as acts of remembrance
  • George Ghantous and Lauren Donahue recently tied the knot in an abandoned Maronite church in Biram

AMMAN/NAZARETH: When George Ghantous, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Lauren Donahue, his American fiancee, were planning their wedding, there were lots of details that needed to be agreed upon. But the couple settled on one important decision from the outset: The wedding would take place in an abandoned church in the village of Biram, George’s ancestral home.

In 1948, during the war that resulted in the creation of the state of Israel, the people of Biram — a mainly Christian village high in the mountains of Galilee above Safed, not far from the Lebanese border — found themselves caught up in the fighting.

It was occupied by Israeli forces who, seven months later in a well-documented incident, expelled the residents of Biram as well as Iqrit, a village about 21 kilometers away.

Caught in the crossfire of a conflict between the Israeli army and Arab guerrillas operating from bases in Lebanon, the inhabitants of the two villages, who mostly made a living from cultivating fruit trees, were ordered to leave their homes for two weeks until the situation stabilized.

Seventy-three years later, the villagers and their descendants — now citizens of Israel, whose properties are supposed to be protected by Israeli law — still have not been allowed to return.




The couple seal their marriage vows with a kiss. (Supplied)

Worse still, despite an Israeli High Court decision in the 1950s upholding the villagers’ property rights, the Israeli army demolished, presumably as a deterrent to any future return, all the buildings in both villages except for a Melkite church in Iqrit and a Maronite church in Biram.

Maronites, who now live mostly in Lebanon, are a branch of the Syriac Church, which split from the Greek Orthodox faith in the seventh century. Melkites are another Syriac branch who adhere to old Byzantine rites.

In addition to having their wedding service at the church in Biram, Ghantous and Donahue visited the ruins of the house in the village where the groom’s grandparents once lived. There, they performed a traditional ritual that normally takes place at the home of the newlyweds.

The bride, dressed in white, and the groom, in black, stuck unbaked bread dough, decorated with flowers and coins as symbols of prosperity and happiness, to a lintel above the main entrance to what remains of the building.

“If, God forbid, the dough does not stick, then a shout of dismay is heard by the guests as this is bad luck and the marriage may be doomed,” Michael Oun, an authority on Middle East history and a relative of the groom, told Arab News. “When they make the dough, the groom’s family takes good care to make sure that it really sticks.”

Fortunately for the happy couple, the dough did stick. But in addition to marking the start of their married life together, the ritual also served as a political statement making it clear that even members of this third generation of Palestinian Christians have not forgotten the villages their families were forced to leave, and to which they one day hope to return.




The abandoned Maronite church in Biram, George Ghantous’s ancestral home. (Supplied)

Ghantous said that he was made aware of his grandparents’ original home from an early age and has visited it on many occasions, at Christmas and Easter and to attend baptisms and weddings.

“We were raised in this beautiful place, under its sky and among the trees and the refreshing breeze,” he told Arab News. “Our spirit and our parents’ and grandparents’ spirits are here among the houses and among ourselves. It is natural that this would be the place where our joy is realized.”

Over the years, Israeli leaders of all parties have promised to help the villagers of Biram and Iqrit to return to their homes, only for the promises to be broken amid fears that it might encourage other Palestinians to demand the return of their ancestral lands and homes.

Rejecting the demand, Lior Haiat, spokesperson of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Arab News that the official position on the issue remains unchanged.

Ayman Odeh, a member of Knesset and head of the Joint List, the main Arab bloc in the parliament, accuses Israeli authorities of paying lip service to the demands of the people from the villages, instead of taking corrective steps.

“Not only do they not have the will but they are unable to go beyond the security blockade,” he told Arab News.

Odeh claimed Reuven Rivlin, who served seven years in the mainly ceremonial role of president of Israel, once made a promise that he would not allow his term in office to end without the people of Biram and Iqrit being allowed to return.

“Rivlin’s term ended (in July this year) and his promise has not materialized, even though he was the highest authority in Israel, albeit a symbolic one,” Odeh said. “He clearly couldn’t bypass the instructions of the security agencies that form the deep state.”

Odeh said he also received assurances from Yitzhak Herzog, Rivlin’s successor as president, but these have yet to translate into action.

“I asked him to send a letter of support to the people of these two villages and he did,” Odeh said. “Now he is president and his first visit was to a Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.”

Ibrahim Issa was 14 years old when Biram was occupied and destroyed. He is now 87. When Arab News spoke to him on Sept. 10, he had just left church after the regular morning mass for older former residents of the village. He said he visits the village with his wife at least twice a week.

“I was raised in Biram and have eaten its figs and grapes, and played in its roads,” he said. “That is why I love it and cling to the hope of returning some time. I have been coming to Biram and stayed in the area after its demolition, even during military rule. I have followed the whole struggle for 73 years.”




Bishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. (Supplied)

Bishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, perhaps the most famous former resident of Biram, is the author of “Blood Brothers,” a best-selling memoir of life as an Arab citizen of Israel.

Now retired, he was eight when the village was taken over by the military. He lobbied Shimon Peres, the Israeli former president and prime minister, to allow the residents to return.

“I told him: ‘I come to you as a son of Biram. Biramites are still alive,’” Chacour told Arab News. “Peres replied: ‘That was a long time ago.’ I told him: ‘You kept remembering Palestine for 2,000 years and then you traveled to Palestine and caused us damage and you want us Biram people to forget?’”

Chacour sees little hope of progress under the new Israeli government, but considers Mansour Abbas, an Arab citizen of Israel who leads the United Arab List in the Knesset, as the only politician capable of moving things forward. Still, he thinks Biram will endure.

“As long as the people of Biram and their descendants live and remember the village,” Chacour told Arab News, “Biram will not die.”


Iqrit and Biram: A brief history of expulsions

 

As fighting raged between Arabs and Jews in 1948, Israeli troops occupied Iqrit, a village of 616 residents. The leaders of the village signed a surrender document. The local priest reportedly even greeted the troops with a Bible in his hand while chanting in Hebrew, “Welcome, Oh children of Israel.”

A week later, the commander of the Israeli troops ordered the inhabitants of Iqrit to leave and travel southeast to the Arab village of Rameh “for two weeks until the security situation will allow them to return,” according to historical records. The villagers did as they were told, leaving most of their belongings behind.

The same fate befell Biram, a village with a population of 1,050. Its people also were ordered to leave for two weeks and given a promise that they would be allowed to return soon. They went to the nearby village of Jish, about 5 kilometers to the east, and moved into the homes of Muslims who had fled the fighting during the war.




An old picture of the village of Biram before it was destroyed by Israeli forces. (Supplied)

The ruins of both villages are located a few miles from the border with Lebanon. Iqrit is about 21 kilometers to the west of Biram. The residents of the former were Melkite Greek Catholics and the latter were mostly members of the Maronite church. Both are eastern sects of the Catholic church.

When the residents of Iqrit failed in their efforts to ensure the authorities would keep their promise and allow them to return to their homes, they appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel. In July 1951, the court ruled that they should be allowed to return. The Israeli army ignored the decision and demolished the village on Christmas Eve, 1951, leaving only the church standing.

Biram fared no better. Its appeal to the High Court failed on a technicality and Israeli fighter jets demolished the village in July 1953. Former residents watched its destruction from a place that later became known as “Wailing Hill.” Again, only its church was spared.

Soon after, large sections of land near Biram were designated public parks. Other areas were incorporated into new Jewish settlements. In 1968, with the end of military rule in Israel, former residents and their families were granted the right to be buried or get married in Biram.

_________________

Daoud Kuttab in Amman and Botrus Mansour in Nazareth


Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Updated 5 sec ago

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe
TEHRAN: An Iranian appeals court has upheld a verdict sentencing an Iranian-British woman long held in Tehran to another year in prison, her lawyer said Saturday.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic. Her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told The Associated Press that the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year.
The verdict additionally includes a one-year travel ban abroad, meaning she cannot leave Iran to join her family for nearly two years.
In April, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced for allegedly spreading “propaganda against the system” when she participated in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.
Kermani said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “concerned” when he informed her about the appeals court decision. He said his client is in touch with her family.
State media in Iran did not immediately acknowledge the ruling, apparently issued after a closed-door hearing.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.
Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies. Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance.
Authorities furloughed Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison because of the surging coronavirus pandemic and she has been restricted to her parents’ Tehran home since.

Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia

Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia
Updated 13 min 1 sec ago

Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia

Arab coalition says 160 Houthis killed, 11 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia
  • Abedia is a district in Yemen’s Marib which has been under a Houthi siege since Sept. 23
  • The coalition added that it continues to support the Yemeni army in its efforts to protect civilians from Houthi violations

RIYADH: The Arab coalition said on Saturday that 160 Houthis had been killed and 11 military vehicles destroyed in operations in Abedia.

The coalition said it had carried out 32 operations targeting Houthis in Marib’s Abedia district over the past 24 hours.

Abedia is a district in Yemen’s Marib which has been under a Houthi siege since Sept. 23, hindering the movement of civilians and impeding humanitarian aid flows.

The coalition added that it continues to support the Yemeni army in its efforts to protect civilians from Houthi violations.

The coalition announced on Friday that it had killed over 180 Houthis and destroyed ten military vehicles in similar operations in Abedia.


Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW

Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW
Updated 7 min 51 sec ago

Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW

Turkish soldiers beat Afghan asylum seekers, force returns to Iran, claims HRW
  • The practice is in violation of international law and some families have been separated as a result: HRW
  • Some people had their bones broken as a result of the force used by Turkish soldiers

LONDON: Turkish authorities are violently returning Afghan asylum seekers from Iran as soon as they arrive in Turkey, Human Rights Watch has said.

The practice is in violation of international law and some families have been separated as a result, the rights organization said. 

Six Afghans, five of whom were pushed back, told HRW that the Turkish army had severely beat them and their fellow travelers and expelled them in groups of 50 to 300 people as they tried to cross the border into Turkey.

Some people had their bones broken as a result of the force used. 

“Turkish authorities are denying Afghans trying to flee to safety the right to seek asylum,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW. “Turkish soldiers are also brutally mistreating the Afghans while unlawfully pushing them back.”

“EU member states should not consider Turkey a safe third country for Afghan asylum seekers and should suspend all deportations and forced returns of Afghan nationals, including to third countries like Turkey where their rights would not be respected,” Wille said.

“They should also ensure that Afghans entering the EU via Turkey have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures,” he added.

HRW said it had remotely interviewed six Afghans between Sept. 25 and Oct. 11. Five of them were hiding in Turkey to avoid being expelled to Iran, and one had been forcibly returned to Iran for a third time. All had fled Afghanistan shortly before or after Aug. 15, when the Taliban took control of Kabul.

The Afghans said they had traveled through Pakistan and Iran, and that Iranian smugglers took them to the border with Turkey in the middle of the night and told them to run across. Turkish soldiers fired above their heads and two said they were brutally beaten by soldiers.

One of the Afghans said he successfully remained in Turkey on his first attempt while another had been deported back to Iran. The other four said Turkish soldiers forced them back up to three times before they succeeded in remaining in Turkey.

Two said that Turkish forces destroyed their possessions, and those of everyone in the group they were expelled with. 

“Once they arrested us, they confiscated our phones, money, food, and anything else we were carrying and burned all of our things in a big fire,” one woman said. “I assume they did this to send the message that we should not try to cross the border again.” 

One man said they stripped the men in his group down to their underwear, burned their clothes and belongings, and then forcibly returned them.

Another man said that soldiers beat them with the butts of their guns and that several men in his group had broken hands, arms, and legs from the cruel beatings.

Another man said he saw Turkish soldiers beating people he had crossed with and that they were covered in blood and had wounds to their heads.

“They beat me for about 20 minutes with the butts of their guns and sticks, leaving me bleeding,” he said.

One woman said that on her third attempt to cross into Turkey with her two children, her brother, his wife, and their child, Turkish soldiers detained her brother and his wife and expelled them, leaving their child with her.

Turkey hosts the world’s largest number of refugees including 3.7 million from Syria who have been granted temporary protection status, and over 400,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. 

HRW has previously documented illegal pushbacks and beatings of asylum seekers, including returning refugees to Syria.

The organization said that while most people interviewed said they were forcibly returned close to the border, one man said that he and eight of his relatives were deported after they went to a local immigration office in Turkey after feeling ill.

“When we got there, the authorities arrested us and took our phones and turned them off, so the rest of our family had no idea what happened to us,” he said.

“They held us for two nights and one day, and only fed us twice … after the second night they put us onto buses with about 100 other people and drove us to the border. One soldier at the border told us, ‘here is the border. Don’t come back. If you do, we will beat you.’”


Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison

Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison
Updated 16 October 2021

Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison

Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison
  • Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency

TEHRAN: A court sentenced the former governor of Iran’s central bank to 10 years in prison for violating the country’s currency system, a judiciary spokesperson said Saturday.
Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency, judiciary spokesman Zabihollah Khodaeian told state TV.
Ahmad Araghchi, a then-deputy to Seif, was sentenced to eight years on the same charges, Khodaeian said. Eight others were also sentenced to various prison terms, he said. All of the defendants have the right to appeal.
Seif was governor of Iran’s central bank for five years until 2018 under former President Hassan Rouhani. Araghchi was his deputy from 2017 to 2018.
State TV said they were involved in violations of the currency market in 2016, a time when the Iranian rial sustained considerable losses in value against major foreign currencies.
The defendants illegally injected $160 million and 20 million euros into the market, state TV said.
The rial exchange rate was at 39,000 to $1 in 2017 at the beginning of Araghchi’s time in office but it reached more than 110,000 to $1 by the time he was dismissed in 2018. The change partly coincided with severe US sanctions imposed on Tehran.
The rial has tumbled from a rate of around 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to around 27,000 rials to $1 in recent months. The currency unexpectedly rallied for some time after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and reimpose crippling trade sanctions on Iran in 2018.
The sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of income, to fall sharply.


Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed
Updated 16 October 2021

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

BEIRUT: The head of the Christian Lebanese Forces party (LF) denied late on Friday his group had planned street violence in Beirut that killed seven people, and said a meeting held the day before was purely political.
Thursday’s violence, which began as people were gathering for a protest called by Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah against the judge investigating last year’s Beirut port blast, was the worst in over a decade and stirred memories of the country’s ruinous sectarian civil war from 1975-90.
Samir Geagea told Voice of Lebanon International radio that a meeting held on Wednesday by a political grouping the LF belongs to had discussed action options should Iran-backed Hezbollah succeed in efforts to remove the judge.
Geagea said the option agreed upon in that event was to call for a public strike, and nothing else.
The powerful Hezbollah group stepped up accusations against the LF on Friday, saying it killed the seven Shiites to try to drag the country into a civil war.
The violence, which erupted at a boundary between Christian and Shiite neighborhoods, has added to concerns over the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and grappling with one of the world’s worst ever economic meltdowns.
Asked whether the presence of LF members in the areas of Ain Al-Remmaneh and Teyouneh, where the shooting erupted, meant the incident was planned, Geagea said they were always present in these areas.
The security coordinator in the party contacted the authorities when they heard a protest was planned and asked for a heavy military presence in the area “as our priority was for the demonstration to pass by simply as a demonstration and not affect civil peace,” Geagea said.
Geagea said his party was assured that would be the case.
“The army has arrested snipers so they need to tell us who they are and where they came from.”
Nineteen people have been detained so far in relation to the incident.