Efforts Again Fail to Solve Problem of Ikrit and Birim

The latest attempts to solve the 30 year-old problem of Ikrit and Birim, the former Arab-Christian villages in Upper Galilee, failed this week when the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee deferred discussion of the issue pending a decision by a ministerial committee chaired by Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, the most outspoken Cabinet “hawk.”

Sharon asked the committee Monday to postpone its deliberations on the matter until his committee completed its work. The committee, formed when the Likud government took office last June, has made no progress since then despite promises by Likud that a solution would be found.

Ikrit and Birim were evacuated in 1948 during Israel’s War for Independence. The villagers claim that the Israeli army promised that they could return to their homes in a short time and have evidence supporting that claim. Instead, their lands were divided among Jews in neighboring settlements and the villages were razed, ostensibly as a security measure to prevent their use by terrorist infiltrators from Lebanon.

Despite numerous appeals on their behalf by many Israelis and by Christian religious leaders, the previous Labor-led governments refused to repatriate the villagers on grounds that to do so would establish a precedent for the return of other Arab refugees to their homes in Israel. The official policy was that Arab refugees should be re-settled in other Arab countries. The former residents of Ikrit and Birim were relocated in the nearby village of Jish within Israel’s borders.

Despite Likud’s promise, there is little sign that the present government will depart from the policy of its predecessors. The Kensset committee deferred to Sharon’s request over the protest of MK Akiva Noff of the Democratic Movement for Change. He asserted that the committee is a sovereign body of the Knesset and has the right to discuss the issue independently of the ministerial committee. Noff lodged an official complaint with Moshe Arens, chairman of the Knesset committee.

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