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Cabinet Names Committee to Study Possibility of Repatriating 200 Christian Arabs to Ikrit, Biram Sit

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A four-member ministerial committee was named by the Cabinet today to study the possibility of repatriating some 200 Christian Arabs to the sites of Ikrit and Biram, their former villages near the Lebanese border and to report to Premier Menachem Begin as soon as possible. Begin said Friday that he personally favored the return but stressed that the final decision rested with the government.

The committee, headed by Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon, consists of Housing Minister Gideon Patt, Minister of Commerce Yigael Hurwitz and Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu Hatzeira. Patt, a member of Likud’s Liberal Party wing and Abu Hatzeira of the National Religious Party are known to sympathize with the villagers’ long-standing appeal for repatriation. Hurwitz, who represents the State List (La’am) faction in Likud, is opposed. Observers believe that the committee’s recommendations will depend largely on the attitude of Sharon who has not yet expressed himself publicly on the issue.

Ikrit and Biram were evacuated for security reasons during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The army reportedly promised the villagers they would be returned within two weeks. But nearly 30 years have elapsed and successive Labor-led governments have refused to repatriate them on grounds that the original security situation still prevails. Both villages were razed by the army in the late 1950s and the villagers, members of the Maronite and Greek Catholic communities, were re-settled in other Arab Christian towns.

They never abandoned hope of returning, however, and claim that Likud leaders promised them repatriation once Likud came into power. Likud circles said they knew of no such promise but were willing to look into the matter.

LABOR ALIGNMENT OPPOSES REPATRIATION

The Labor Alignment, officially, remains adamant against repatriation but is sharply split over the issue. A meeting of the Labor Central Committee decided over the weekend to instruct the party’s Knesset faction to vote against the villagers’ return. But only a few of the Committee’s 701 members attended and Labor MK Yossi Sarid has demanded another vote. Labor’s Alignment partner, Mapam, has indicated that it would support repatriation.

Labor’s official argument is that security considerations still govern the Lebanese border region. They also note that the land around the former villages has been under cultivation by neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim for almost 30 years and that repatriation would set a precedent for the return of other Arabs to the towns from which they were displaced during the 1948 war, such as Jaffa and Ramleh.

Sarid disclaimed any security risk, pointing out that there are other Arab villages near the Lebanese border. Moreover, he said, the villagers are not demanding any cultivated areas. As for the precedent, Sarid noted that the former residents of Ikrit and Biram are the only ones for whom the Israeli Supreme Court has recommended repatriation.

Most observers believe that a Knesset vote would favor repatriation but they caution that the appointment of a Cabinet committee to study the matter should not be regarded as a first step in that direction. The committee’s terms of reference require it only to investigate the total situation of the villagers.

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