A Campaign of Palestinian Nonviolent Direct Action

by Claire Gorfinkel and Howard Frederick

Editor’s Preface: This previously unpublished article details the 1974 visit by the authors to the Palestinian villages of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit, in Israel 4 kilometres south of the Lebanese border. Most of the inhabitants had been expelled in 1948 during an Israeli military campaign against the Arab Liberation Army and Syrian forces, Operation Hiram. A few stalwart villagers remained to protect their ancestral homes, and the article vividly details their struggle. A small Malkite Greek Catholic church was also kept open in Iqrit and crops planted in both villages, every year uprooted by Israeli settlers or army. The authors met with the Malkite Archbishop Joseph Raya (1916-2005), who was one of the leaders of a joint Palestinian-Israeli nonviolent peace effort. In 1965 he had also been made Grand Archimandrite of Jerusalem. Further textual and biographical notes appear at the end of the article. JG

Ruins of Kafr Bir’im; courtesy wikipedia.org

Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit are Arab Christian villages, located in Israel just south of the Lebanese border. The villagers’ story is a simple one. Israeli Jews and Arabs have verified its authenticity. Prior to the 1948 war the inhabitants of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit had good relations with their Jewish neighbours. (1) They had helped illegal Jewish immigrants cross the Lebanese border, and they welcomed the new Jewish state. The fighting never directly involved the villages, and when the Israeli army arrived at the end of October 1948, the villagers, unlike many Arab Palestinians, did not resist or flee. Based on their long friendship with Jews, they welcomed the Army with traditional bread and salt.

Two weeks later, the army asked the villagers to leave their homes for a short time. Chroniclers have disputed the reasons for this request. Some say that an Arab counter-offensive from Lebanon was anticipated, but others say that was only a pretext to get them off their land. In any case, the villagers were assured that they would be allowed to return in a fortnight. Today, twenty-six years later, these loyal citizens of Israel are still denied permission to live in their ancestral homes. Their campaign to regain their land has been a classic nonviolent struggle.

During the first few years the villagers took refuge in neighbouring towns. The men made regular visits to tend their fields and maintain their homes. Frequently they wrote letters and sought aid from government officials. Military and civilian authorities repeatedly assured them that the situation was known, and that no one intended to keep the people from their homes. In 1951 the villagers filed suit in the Israeli High Court of Justice. The Court upheld the right of the villagers to return. The villages had not been abandoned and therefore were not under the jurisdiction of the Custodian of Absentee Property. Since no expulsion order had been issued in 1948, the Court ruled that the Military Authorities had no legal basis for keeping the villagers out. Ironically, the Court decision upholding the villagers’ rights made matters worse. The Military Governor issued retroactive expulsion orders. He thus made the expulsion legal and thereby transferred jurisdiction from the civil courts to the military authorities. To enforce the decision, army demolition experts systematically blew up every house in Iqrit and dropped incendiary bombs on Kafr Bir’im. In both villages, every home was destroyed.

The Israeli Parliament (Knesset) passed a land acquisition act retroactively transferring ownership of the lands of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit to the Israel Development Authority. The villagers’ farmlands were made available to new immigrants from the U.S.A. to establish a kibbutz and a farm collective (moshav). (2) The Israeli government offered money as compensation to the villagers for the loss of their lands, but only a handful accepted. Most insisted that only return of the land itself would suffice. By this time most of the villagers had found homes in Haifa and Acre, two hours away, where they continued their business, professional and educational activities while continuously pushing for the return of their old villages. In 1965 they offered a compromise: they admitted that their two villages were very close to Lebanon, an enemy of Israel. They offered to cease their demand for return of their lands, until a peace settlement had been reached between Israel and Lebanon, on condition that the land be formally registered in their names. Their offer was rejected, prompting many Israelis to suspect that security was not the authorities’ motivating concern.

The case began to attract national attention. Many prominent Israelis took up the villagers’ cause. There were special cabinet meetings on the issue. A delegation of writers and intellectuals argued their cause unsuccessfully for seven hours with then Prime Minister Golda Meir. Israeli peace movement groups began to organise support for Kafr Bir’im and Ikrit. ‘Cry the Beloved Bir’im’ became a nationwide slogan, influenced by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

A special person entered the struggle at this point. Joseph Raya had been appointed Greek Catholic Archbishop of the Galilee with his seat in Haifa. The church at Iqrit fell under his jurisdiction. Raya was born in Lebanon and served as Archbishop of the Greek Catholic community in Birmingham Alabama. During his eighteen-year tenure there he participated in the nonviolent civil resistance campaigns of Martin Luther King, Jr. Raya thus began a crucial role as a mediator for the villagers to the Israeli government and a charismatic leader of nonviolent protest.

In 1972 Military Security Zones were abolished within Israel’s pre-’67 borders, which include Kafr Bir’im and Ikrit. Archbishop Raya was permitted to rebuild his church at Ikrit, but the military governor refused permission for the villagers to rebuild their homes. As the Arabs say, this was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

The villagers began their use of nonviolent tactics. In August they brought beds and furniture and entire families to occupy their church. They were joined for a day by 1,000 kibbutz members, writers and intellectuals, students, professors and politicians in support of their right of return. Two days later both the local police and the border police were called in to forcibly remove the villagers. During the eviction twenty were arrested and several were injured.

Archbishop Raya led a march of several thousand Arab and Jewish Israelis for two miles through the streets of Jerusalem, culminating in a rally in front of Prime Minister Meir’s home. At the end of the rally, Raya addressed the Prime Minister over the loudspeaker urging ‘justice, love and equality’, and ‘the unity of Jews and Arabs’.

In Spring 1973 a rally for Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit was held near Hadera, Israel. It was organised by leftist Israelis, including members of War Resisters’ International, from kibbutzim around the country. Among the numerous speakers were Raya, members of Knesset and Joseph Abileah, a WRI member, and a CO in the 1948 war. Between 2,000 and 5,000 people attended the rally, a sizeable number in a country of then only 3.5 million.

Following the rally, Archbishop Raya and several others undertook a hunger fast in front of the Knesset to further dramatize their concern and call upon Israel’s lawmakers to effect a change. Young people from the kibbutzim, members of the Knesset and the press joined in the crowd on the lawn specifically designated as a ‘forum for expressing political views’. The kibbutzniks held a sign which read ‘Once there was Iqrit, once there was Bir’im, once there was Palestine. Now they are no longer.’ Still, Israel’s leaders remained unmoved.

Since the abolition of the Military Security zones, the villagers have been able to use their churches for weddings, funerals, and other religious celebrations when specific permission is granted by the Military Governor. Though they must travel several hours to get there, many do so every Sunday to reaffirm their identity with their churches, their homes, their cemeteries, and to maintain their very real sense of community solidarity. In September 1973 Archbishop Raya decided to perform a baptism at Iqrit, without requesting permission. He insisted that the free use of their churches was the villagers’ right. When he arrived with 500 villagers in a caravan of buses and cars, they were met by police barricades. Raya refused to negotiate until the police removed their helmets and guns. After much discussion, the police allowed the baptism to take place on Iqrit lands.

One final incident is reflective of the arbitrary quality of justice regarding the people of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit, as well as the support their cause has attracted. Throughout the twenty-six years, a few old men have lived in the churches of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit, with Israeli government permission, to perform maintenance and protect the property from vandalism. Since their families cannot enter the villages except on those religious occasions for which permission has been granted, the men must walk down the path to the roadway daily to pick up the food and all the provisions which the families must bring up to them. In 1972 the two men living at Iqrit church, aged 79 and 80, were arrested for having planted onions in the soil of their destroyed homes. They were charged with trespassing. In Court they acknowledged planting the onions but insisted, ‘we are not guilty of trespassing on our own land’. The judge fined them two Israeli pounds (at the time worth about 20p British). The men insisted they would rather go to jail than pay the fine. In the face of such resistance, the Attorney General dropped the charges.

There are many more stories, but their point is clear. The villagers have tried numerous nonviolent tactics to regain their land. They have refused compensation in the form of money or other land. They have shown their sincere loyalty as voting citizens of Israel. They have exhausted all legal channels and have waited patiently for redress of their grievances. Still the government has remained adamant. In legal and administrative practice, Arabs simply cannot regain land which has been taken from them. Their sole crime is having been born Arab.

What does this campaign indicate about nonviolence, its use in this context, and relevance in the Middle East? Perhaps this is not a nonviolent campaign in the purist sense; it is more precisely a campaign in which nonviolent tactics have been selected either for their moral virtue or pragmatic considerations. Violence would be foolish against so strong an opponent. The villagers themselves are unfamiliar with a philosophy of nonviolence as a powerful weapon. Though they are Christians, there is little in their culture which provides a precedent of nonviolent action. But just as they do not see nonviolence as an end in itself, the villagers also believe that the use of violent tactics is inappropriate. They see themselves inextricably tied to the land of their ancestors’ graves, their own farmlands, homes and churches. They have no doubts about their moral right in this cause and thus far, despite all their defeats, they still expect the Israeli government to recognize their right and grant them justice.

This may well be an unrealistic expectation. The Israeli government has repeatedly reiterated three rationales for denying the right of return to the villagers of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit: security, precedent setting, and weakening of Zionist ideology. Regarding security: the villagers use their churches frequently, some are currently hired as day-labourers on what used to be their own lands, a few live in the churches, they serve in the Army, and further, there are other inhabited Arab villages as close or closer to the Lebanese border. Indeed, the villagers have already demonstrated clearly their loyalty and their concern for the security of the state by the forms of their campaign.

Precedent setting: There are 35 other villages in this predicament, i.e. they were made refugees within Israel, though they have not made the same continuous, systematic demand to return. Members of the Israeli government have feared that if they gave in to Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit, residents of those 35 other villages might similarly press their claims. If they did, they might amount to 30,000 local citizens asking for resettlement in their own country which also absorbs more than 10,000 newcomers annually. But giving in to Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit is equated with giving in to Arab demands in general and such a risk leads to the more traumatic and more abstract danger of weakening Zionist ideology.

Recognition of an error in Zionist policy might lead to erosion of the belief in the utter righteousness of the Zionist cause. Golda Meir once said, ‘If any injustice has been done to the people of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit, it was in misleading them into believing that they would be allowed to return.’ Harshly stated, the government believes that the solution to the problem of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit is for the villagers to disappear. Under the pressure of Palestinian guerrilla raids from within and outside Israel and the perpetual state of war between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Israeli leaders believe they cannot afford to make distinctions between ‘good Arabs’ and ‘hostile Arabs’. They cannot give in to Arab demands, and the abstraction ‘security’ must have precedence over the abstraction ‘justice’.

Israel’s policy of lumping the villagers of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit together with Palestinian guerillas has further ramifications, themselves filled with irony and relevance for nonviolence. The Black September guerrilla attack on the Munich Olympics in 1972 was code-named Operation Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit, and in a note to the press the guerrillas stressed the link between those Palestinians who were oppressed in their own land and those forced into exile abroad. The villagers of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit share the Palestinian identity, but they explicitly deplore the tactics of violence and condemn them as being destructive to their cause. In turn, the larger Palestinian resistance movement has criticised their choice of nonviolent tactics and their expressed loyalty to Israel and has seen them as ‘sell-outs’. Here, as in so many other situations the source of power — in this case the Israeli government — has a clear choice: to uphold the justice of the cause of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit as well as the integrity of their nonviolent tactics, or to deny their justice, degrade their tactics, and thereby possibly force upon them the frustrations which lead to armed struggle.

Recently it has been reported that Archbishop Raya has been called out of the area. Some say his life was threatened because he was ‘too sympathetic’ to the Israeli government, others connect his leaving with the recent arrest of another Greek Catholic Archbishop in Jerusalem, on charges of carrying guns for the Palestinian resistance. No one can estimate the effect of his departure on the villagers. Indeed, even Raya seemed at a loss when the authors of this article asked him in April 1974: ‘You have tried every nonviolent channel open to you and still you have failed, what are you going to do now?’ And he replied: ‘We will go back and try again.’


(1) Following the 1948 war, all Arab homes and lands not personally occupied by their owner at the time of the Army’s arrival (even if the owner was at a neighbour’s house) were declared to be ‘abandoned’ and were turned over to the Custodian of Absentee Property. No provisions have ever been made for the return of those lands.

(2) In all their demands for return, the villagers have stated that they do not want those lands now occupied by the kibbutz and the moshav, but only their home sites and lands not in use.

REFERENCE: IISG/WRI Archive Box 22: Folder 2, Subfolder 2.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This is a paper presented at the WRI 15th Triennial Conference, October 1975, held that year at the Leeuwenhorst Conference Center, Noordwijk, Netherlands. For further reports of this story see: RAYA, Joseph, “Refugees Within Israel, The Case of the Villagers of Kafr Bir’im and Iqrit”, Journal of Palestine Studies, #4, Summer 1973; and, Amos Elon, “Two Towns that Plumb Israel’s Conscience”, The New York Times Magazine, October 22, 1972.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Claire Gorfinkel is an activist, writer, and long-time member of Orange Grove Friends meeting in Pasadena where she is also a member of a local synagogue. She spent most of her adult life working for peace and justice with the American Friends Service Committee. In 2011 she completed a Chaplaincy training program at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and is now concerned with issues of aging, and helping faith communities be more effective in caring for their members.

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