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A Guide for the Perplexed

On the Return of the Refugees

by Samera Esmeir | published April 2014

Arrival

You have reached the village of Kafr Bir‘im. Drive through the gate next to the sign designating the village as a “national park.” Ignore the information on the sign that only briefly mentions the existence of a Palestinian village here prior to 1948 while elaborating on other histories of the place. This strange historical method should come as no surprise given that the Israel Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority put up the sign. A guard is positioned next to the gate to collect fees on behalf of said Authority. To avoid the fee, drive with the confidence characteristic of the village’s Arab Palestinian inhabitants. After their expulsion from the village, and its transformation to a national park, they were allowed to visit their home without paying a fee. If you can mimic their unmistakable sense of belonging and rootedness, only intensified after their expulsion, you should get a free pass. Park your car in the lot overlooking the cemetery -- the only place where the inhabitants of the village do not risk expulsion, provided they are dead. Take a short hike up the hill on the stone steps surrounded by lush trees, pass a temple to your right, keep going up and arrive at a small square. You have reached the center of the village. Stand there for a few seconds, close your eyes, and take a long, deep breath. Enjoy the clean air of the Upper Galilee. Listen to the mountain silence. Observe the elegance of the stone construction in front of you; it is left standing after the 1948 occupation of the village and its consequent destruction.

The Square

Two renovated structures surround the square: to the left the village church and to the right a two-room building, which until 1948 functioned as an elementary school. Climb to the roof of the school and absorb the vista-like views of the surrounding green hills, stretching into Lebanon. Let your eyesight defy the restrictions that the occupation of Palestine in 1948 imposed on the Palestinians of the Galilee, who are no longer able to cross into Lebanon. On a clear day, you can see the Lebanese town of Rumaysh, a mere few miles away. Come down and go up to the roof of the church. Overlooking the village at 2,460 feet above sea level, the church was spared direct bombardment in 1953 when the force that conquered Palestine shelled the village to prevent the return of its residents. For their part, the residents witnessed the bombardment from a nearby ridge that subsequently earned the name Tall al-Mabka’ (Weeping Hill). Stretch your arms and use your full strength to ring the big church bell that persists in the tower. Pull the rope hard and let the bell resound with the same human energy it receives from the inhabitants of the village who continue to visit it even after their expulsion.

Ruins

As you listen to the echoes, observe the ruins of the demolished village, the walls of collapsed houses. Visualize the people who until not long ago lived in these houses and prayed in that church. Recall their forced expulsion in 1948. Of the expelled from Kafr Bir‘im, some became refugees in Lebanon, others refugees as well as citizens in the new colonial state, or as the legal designation goes, “internally displaced.” Go further back in your journey in time. Do not stop in 1948. Zoom in to the collapsed walls of the house next to the church. You should begin to hear the villagers’ conversations and to visualize their lives perduring in the ruins. It should take you only a few minutes to return back more than 65 years in time and experience the village alive once again. This leap in time need not perplex you: No magic or technology is involved. This particular leap stands for the impossibility of complete destruction and expulsion, and hence for the possibility of return, both in time and in space.

Time-Now

Avoid stretching your imagination. Not everything you hear and see is in the past tense. As you stand there, recognize the voices and the sights that are from the present time. Discern the dress code of the youth chatting, reading and walking between the trees. Spot the lights on the Christmas tree in the corner of the square; such decorations were uncommon prior to 1948. Look to the right: There is another group seated in the old school watching a movie -- Omar, which in January 2014 was nominated for an Oscar. Take note of others gathered in the square: They are assessing the court rulings in their case from December 2013 and April 2014. Rest assured, you are in time-now. Prepare to experience the village before the great expulsion of 1948 coming to life again in time-now, either in the same characters who once inhabited the village, or in their children and grandchildren. Prepare to witness the return of the refugees—the undoing of their identity against the facts of 1948 and its aftermath.

In August 2013 some of the refugees of Kafr Bir‘im declared their return to their village. They resolved to transform return from a suspended horizon to a present practice. Announcing that they were no longer refugees, they moved to live in the church and in the two-room school structure of the village, holding gatherings, parties, events and concerts. Like others who have homes, they started receiving visitors; they became hosts again. Witness how decades of Zionist occupation and colonization are set aside in favor of a life that persists despite them. But also prepare to observe how the powers of occupation and colonization attempt to fight back, reinstate the dominance of the colonial state and renew the expulsion of 1948 under the guise of the “evacuation orders” of 2013.

Expulsion

Kafr Bir‘im’s Arab Palestinian inhabitants, or Bir‘imites, were expelled during the 1948 occupation of Palestine by Zionist forces. The Haganah militia occupied Kafr Bir‘im on October 31 of that year during Operation Hiram, which resulted in the occupation of the Upper Galilee. The operation lasted 60 hours over October 29-31 and turned the Upper Galilee from being the mountainous area of Northern Palestine that was to be designated as part of the Arab state, according to the UN Partition Plan of 1947, to an area controlled by the new Jewish state. Years later, the village priest would recount in his memoir, Shahadati (My Testimony), the events of the occupation and its aftermath. A three-day curfew was imposed on the village and the residents were forced into the church as the military forces searched the houses. On November 7 the occupying authorities carried out a census and registered about 1,050 residents, who on November 13 were ordered to leave the village within 48 hours. Unwilling to abandon their home, they scattered in the surrounding woods. Seven children died in the November cold within the week. When the “minister of minorities” visited the nearby village of Jish, two Bir‘imites conveyed to him the gravity of their situation. The following day, said minister arrived in Kafr Bir‘im, and announced the decision to transfer the inhabitants to Jish, promising them they could return home within two weeks, when military operations near the northern border were slated to end. On November 19, the transfer was executed. (Having suffered bombing raids as of October 22 culminating in its occupation on October 29 in a cruel battle in which civilians and Arab POWs were killed, Jish, too, had lost some of its inhabitants, either to Lebanon or to the grave.) Jish’s emptied-out houses were not large or numerous enough to house all of Kafr Bir‘im’s refugees. About two hundred of them found no shelter. The military governor ordered these people to seek a temporary housing in Rumaysh on the Lebanese side of the new border. Because the authorities promised the residents return to their village, they allowed five men to stay behind to secure the villagers’ possessions. They, too, would soon be expelled, first by the settlers of what would become Kibbutz Bir’am, and later by an executive order confirming the settlers’ action. The settlers moved in to the village’s houses, leaving when they had set up a new settlement on the village’s land.

Citizen-Refugee-Subject

The occupying forces displaced the land from its people and claimed it as its new rulers. Along with 30,000-40,000 other Palestinians, Bir‘imites were displaced from their homes and villages but remained inside the borders of the new state. Along with the 150,000 Palestinians who were able to stay in their homes within the same borders, they became citizens. Consequently, they became citizen-refugees, a fate that conventional political wisdom cannot comprehend, having divided the world’s populations into citizens and refugees. Both identities, citizen and refugee, were the work of destructive displacement: the displacement of the people and the displacement of the homeland. Because it captures only the internal layer of displacement, the category “internally displaced” fails to describe their status. And there is a third layer. Until 1966, military rule governed the Palestinians who remained in their homeland. Bir‘imites therefore became citizens in a displaced homeland, refugees from a displaced village and subjects of military rule.

The Court

As you listen to the group gathering in the square, notice the references to another village called Iqrit. Its refugees, too, had declared their return in September 2012. Situated about 12 miles west of Kafr Bir‘im, Iqrit suffered a similar expulsion episode in 1948. Its residents, too, were promised they could return to their village within two weeks, and subsequently denied return. Despite the fact that many villages suffered similar fates, Iqrit and Kafr Bir‘im are the two names carved together in the Palestinian collective memory. The villagers from these places both initiated legal action in 1951, after their appeals to the government failed to secure their return. Both sets of complainants were ultimately denied return, though the ruling in Iqrit’s case was much more favorable. Kafr Bir‘im’s priest would later collect the relevant legal documents, in Arabic and Hebrew, and reprint them as an appendix in his Shahadati, making it an indispensable legal archive covering the period until 1968.

Bir‘imites petitioned the High Court on August 31, 1951, against the prime minister, the minister of agriculture, the custodian of the absentee property and the military governor. On October 8, 1951, the court issued an injunction demanding the respondents’ response within two weeks. In his affidavit to the court, the deputy military governor for the Galilee stated that Kafr Bir‘im was now a “closed zone,” as declared on October 29, 1951 in accordance with the British colonial-era emergency regulations of 1945. The refugees’ lawyer counterargued that the designation of the village as a security zone was issued 20 months after the expulsion. And since exit orders were not given at the time of expulsion, the “closed zone” order could not have legally justified that action.

On November 30 the army’s northern command chief issued 215 exit orders targeting 545 Bir‘imites and delivered to 530 of them. Expulsion was thereby legalized retroactively. Military force, administration and law all participated in the making of refugees. The court accepted the legalization of expulsion and further solidified the solidarity between legal and military force. The ruling stated that because the inhabitants were not forced to leave the village in November 1948, but left it in response to the request of the army and in order to facilitate army operations, and because exit orders were issued against the Bir‘imites in the meantime, they could not be allowed to return.

Indeed, no military force was deployed in the expulsion of the Bir‘imites. The power displacing them consisted in the deceptive promise of a military force, the demanding words of an institution of organized violence that had already brought bloody destruction in other places. The language of consent that the court juxtaposed so radically to force, as if one could not be forced to consent or consent to force, or as if expulsion always had to follow a bloody battle, allowed the court to distance itself from the event of expulsion. The legal category “consent” situated expulsion in a domain that invited no judicial review. Consent in modern legal systems belongs to that domain of unobjectionable human action that invites no legal intervention. By deploying this legal category, the court wished such a human action into existence so that the law could recuse itself. Expulsion itself became something that presented no problem. Bombardment could therefore follow. In September 1953, the Israeli army bombarded the village from the air and the ground, destroying most of it, save the church and the cemetery.

The Return Drive

That court ruling sealed the fate of Bir‘imites as no different from that of other Palestinian refugees inside and outside their homeland. Until the decision, Bir‘imites thought that their expulsion would be temporary. In February 1949, some of them went to the village to outfit their houses against the rain; little did they know that in less than two years the entire village would be destroyed. In response, the army arrested around 65 of them and expelled them to the West Bank. They became refugees again in a camp near Nablus. When the families and friends of these double refugees learned of their fate, they helped them return to Jish through Syria and Lebanon.

In 1972 the government abolished the regulation of “security zones” all over the country. If their village was no longer legally inaccessible, Bir‘imites thought they should be able to return. Or so they hoped as they initiated several political campaigns. Their hope proved, once again, to be naïve as the government rejected their appeal. To protest, a number of Bir‘imites returned to the village and went on a hunger strike, or what they called a fast. A few days later they terminated the fast but stayed in the village. Their case (together with that of Iqrit) gained significant visibility in the foreign and local press, in both Hebrew and Arabic. On December 1972, in an order based on the Mandate-era emergency regulations of 1945, the northern command chief declared Kafr Bir‘im (as well as Iqrit) a closed zone, allowing day visits only as well as use of the church. The returning refugees would ultimately be evacuated by force, but they continued to return during the day. In the 1990s, they started holding annual summer camps in the destroyed village, actualizing day-and-night return for a period of ten days. The activism in the 1970s etched Kafr Bir‘im and Iqrit as a pair in the Palestinian political collective consciousness. Additionally, right to left, Zionist politicians began to promise solutions; some even advanced particular policy recommendations, none of which were implemented.

The 1949 return was perhaps no real return; the villagers understood themselves to have been only temporary displaced. The return of 1972 was an act of protest: The refugees demanded that they be granted the right to return. But the returning refugees you are witnessing now, the returnees of 2013, no longer demand recognition of their right; instead they practice it, this time every day and every night. Bir‘imites followed in the footsteps of Iqrit’s refugees who had declared their return a year earlier in September 2012. Call it Palestinian unilateral return.

Palestinian Time

How to explain this persisting return? How to interpret this defiance of the movement of time? At issue is an unbroken relationship that sums up and summons all past connections, memories and lived experiences leading up to the present. It is as if decades of displacement since the great expulsion of 1948 belonged to a time, call it Zionist colonial time, that had no effects on the temporality of the relationship between the village and its inhabitants, call it Palestinian time. While the former stretches itself forward and expands into future decades, attempting to occupy Palestinian life, land and the future of the relationship between the two, the latter is the time that always remains, that is to say the time that never passes, never progresses, never succumbs to the time of relentless expansion, but to the contrary keeps it at bay. Perhaps this is the way to understand how the land could be occupied, the people displaced, the village destroyed, the agricultural land exploited by settlers and the villagers leading new lives elsewhere, and yet how the same material that once cemented the village to its people continues to cement it now. Something magnificent has escaped occupation and colonization, something that may only be understood once it is recognized that the time of the occupied and the time of the occupier do not share the same calendar. This unsharable calendar signifies the incompleteness of the colonization of Palestine.

The No-Longer-Refugee

While their return has not produced new political realities that cannot be undone by state violence, the political significance of the return of the Bir‘imites should be sought not in the political solution they achieve, but in the political practice they introduce. When they first returned to their village, the refugees of Iqrit announced on their Facebook page, “We are no longer refugees, we have returned,” while Bir‘imites said, “I declare my return.”

What does the utterance “we are no longer refugees” do? What is the significance of declaring unilateral return? The meaning and efficacy of this utterance must be sought in the context of its deployment. This context is a space reconfigured through occupation, ethnic cleansing and, significantly, the fragmentation of the Palestinian people into different population groups. Fragmentation is the result of the deployment of legal and military force producing discrete population groups: Palestinian citizens in Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian refugees. Significantly, these groups belong to and identify with different legal regimes, and in turn claim these legal identifications as the basis of struggles as if these struggles do not intersect. Accordingly, the struggle of Palestinian citizens proceeds by claiming equal citizenship rights, as well as, in some instances, national minority rights. The horizon for Palestinian subjects living under occupation is to establish a sovereign, not occupied, state. And refugees claim the right to return. It follows that the identities that the military and legal force engendered for the Palestinians have become the grounds for their discrete struggles against it. What is unchallenged is the making of these separate identities. Further, by dividing the Palestinian people into diverse population groups, allocating to them different legal identities and possible horizons, fragmentation makes difficult a unifying political practice and struggle, presenting Palestinians instead with discrete solutions that unwittingly reproduce fragmentation.

This fragmented depiction does not map out on the reality of the Palestinian people. On the most basic level, these groups are not so distinct: Each group includes refugees, that is, Palestinians who have been expelled from their homes, cities and villages. Equally significant is the unifying experience of displacement among all Palestinians. Once Palestine itself was occupied, those who were expelled were displaced in the legal sense. But for both those who remained and those who were expelled, the homeland itself was displaced; their movement and living within it was and continues to be restricted. Not a single Palestinian today has access to all of Palestine. What unite all Palestinians, then, are their displacement from their homes and the displacement of their homeland. Against the fragmented depiction of the Palestinians, we may therefore say that in some sense all Palestinians are refugees, or that the constitutive political experience of all Palestinians is that of displacement.

Returning to the utterance “we are no longer refugees”: While it belongs to the same space of legal plurality-as-rule, it undoes, temporarily, the identity of the refugee and the experience of displacement. The declaration of return does not undo the effect of legal, bureaucratic and military ethnic cleansing of Palestine; it does not actualize full return for the entirety of the Palestinian people. Rather, it commences from the grounds of the unifying experience, that of displacement and refuge, and proceeds to undo it, initiating a political struggle from outside the structure of fragmented identities. In this utterance, what was once only a solution is now also a means, what was once a political demand is now also a practice. The identity of the refugee is both mobilized and set aside in the struggle and political practice of return. The utterance “I am no longer a refugee” registers a past of refuge but pulls the future promise of return into the present, bridging the gap between the end and the means. The “no-longer-refugee” is a new political identity that intentionally refuses the identities of rule, while grounding itself in and against the common experience of displacement.

Evacuation Order

The 2013 return unfolded outside the confines of the law, mainly because petitioning the High Court again probably would have resulted in a precedent that would have condemned Bir‘imites to a future as refugees. Soon afterward, however, the law caught up with them. On August 21, 2013, a green patrol inspector from the Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority toured the area and reportedly found tents, an electric generator and new water faucets. He also noticed newly planted trees, flowers and vegetables, in addition to a pile of stones behind the church that was not there before. The inspector recorded all these activities, including those of cultivating nature, as constituting a trespass in violation of the status quo as it had existed for many years. He posted an order demanding the cessation of all work in the area. He also filed a complaint with the police. In future inspections, he and his colleagues observed additional new tents, plants and restrooms. Consequently, on September 16, 2013, the Israel Land Authority, the government agency charged with managing Kafr Bir‘im’s land after its occupation in 1948 and consequent seizure by the state, issued an evacuation order against Bir‘imites arguing that they had trespassed on, and seized, the land of Kafr Bir’im. 

Lawsuit

In response, one Bir‘imite, acting as a plaintiff, filed a lawsuit demanding the cancellation of this order as well as a temporary hold on execution of the evacuation order until a decision is reached in the lawsuit. His lawyer argued that Bir‘imites, the holders of historical rights to the land, have been using and demonstrating ownership of the village since the early 1970s. Accordingly, the evacuation order was issued too late and was therefore invalid. Over the past 45 years, the villagers renovated the church, prayed in it, possessed it and invested hundreds of thousands of shekels in its maintenance. All the new structures that the inspector notes were built years ago, the only new addition being the 43 square-foot garden. A procedural argument aiming to invalidate the order on grounds of delay asserted that the villagers have been the possessors of their village for at least 40 years, or in other words that they have already accomplished their return. The repossession of the village is now a long-standing reality.

The lawsuit also narrates the long history of struggle to return since 1948, in the courts, in the parliament and in other civil society settings. Both the government promises and their retractions are recounted in order to establish that the association with the land as well as the quest to return not only never ceased to be, but were also never fully and completely denied by the state. The petition mobilizes government promises to assert that the expulsion is reversible, that return is tangible, and that Kafr Bir‘im’s fate is not yet sealed.

The Land Authority, the respondent, counterargued that the Development Authority, not any collective of Bir‘imites, owns Kafr Bir‘im; that according to the Land Law of 1969, state ownership records constitute indisputable evidence that said authority, and not the villagers, have ownership rights over this land; that other claims to historic rights and past events are irrelevant and cannot be considered on a par with the state-generated records. In the presence of a state that arrogates to itself ownership rights, generates its own ownership records and passes laws that make these records the only valid proof of ownership, Bir‘imites are turned into trespassers on their own land. The Land Authority, too, mobilized a number of legal decisions to argue that the Bir‘imites’ status is resolved.

On December 22, 2013, the magistrate court issued an injunction to stop the execution of the evacuation order until a final decision is reached in the lawsuit. The court reasoned that while the plaintiff does not have ownership rights, he proved that Bir‘imites have had a link, or an association, with the land for many decades. Having proved the existence of such a historical association, the Land Authority could not evacuate the villagers with an administrative order. Such was the legal rule as established by the High Court in other cases of trespass: In cases in which “trespassers” have some affinity with the land, they can only be evacuated by a judicial, not administrative, order. The result: No evacuation will be concluded before the conclusion of the lawsuit.

Not Historical Rights

The cement that binds Bir‘imites’ fate to the land does not consist of state records of ownership generated after the occupation of their village, but is constituted by decades of both habitation and struggle. What seals the villagers’ fate as “no-longer-refugees” is not a paper that states can either generate or destroy, but a life that cannot be recorded through the prism of ownership or coded by the law.

Meanwhile, colonial law desires precisely the opposite -- to be pervasive everywhere and to colonize all dissenting forms of life. The Land Authority appealed to the district court. The district court judge accepted the appeal. He ruled that Bir‘imites have no rights to the land; the historical rights they had were no longer valid. He concluded: Any relationship between the historical ownership rights and the contemporary right to hold the land by those who used to be the inhabitants of Iqrit and Kafr Bir‘im has been severed. The only right they have is to compensation. Historical rights are irrelevant.

And yet, the rights that Bir‘imites in effect are claiming are not merely historical. They are not rights that stem from a past that ceased to be. They are claims that stem from their present relationship with Kafr Bir‘im, from their form of life. Even as these claims translate into a political practice that summons and sums up the past in the present, this past is not “historical” in the sense that it is a foreign and detached period in history. At issue is a relationship to the land that defies the movement of history forward, a movement that is the condition of possibility of the “historical right.” The conceptualization of these rights can only be relevant to the calendar of the colonizer/occupier, the calendar of progressive history. What classifies Bir‘imites as “no-longer-refugees” is not a historical right to the land weakened with the movement of history, but a life and a bond that persists despite the movement of colonial time.

Lubya

Bir‘imites submitted an appeal to the High Court. Its fate will be decided soon. But this story of return did not start with the law, and therefore should not end with the law. As you stand on the roof of the church, on May 6, 2014, observe the no-longer-refugees joining “the march of return” to another destroyed and depopulated village, Lubya. A Palestinian village located six miles west of Tiberias, Lubya was occupied, depopulated and destroyed in 1948. Behold the marchers as they reverse the unifying experience of displacement, as they undo identities of colonial rule and as they persevere in being no-longer-refugees.

Images: Kafr Bir‘im (Habib Sim‘an)

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