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Return to Kufr Bir’im: Like a Wall Upon Your Chest

Standing above an ancient archway on a wall linking an old school house to a church, 86 year old Nakba survivor, To’ameh Maghzal looks down on a crowd of more than 400 people. Hanging on the wall in front of him a banner reads simply ‘A wall upon your chest’ – quoting revolutionary Palestinian poet Tawfiq Ziad. Among the crowd is Fuad Abu Wardi, celebrating his 77th birthday in the village from which he was forcibly displaced as a child. Others, such as 14 year old violinist, Antonio Shakour, were born into exile two generations later, yet as he plays his rendition of Fayrooz’s ‘Nassam Alayna el-Hawa’ (‘The air breezed upon us’) it’s clear that his displacement has not replaced his Palestinian-Arab identity.


Return to Kufr Birim: Like a Wall Upon Your ChestEXCLUSIVE IMAGES

‘In al-Lydd, in Ramle, in the Galilee
we shall remain
like a wall upon your chest…

…we shall remain,
guard the shade of the fig and olive trees,
ferment rebellion in the hearts of our children
as yeast in dough.’

(excerpt from ‘Here We Will Stay’ by Tawfiq Ziad – 1929-1994)

Standing above an ancient archway on a wall linking an old school house to a church, 86 year old Nakba survivor, To’ameh Maghzal looks down on a crowd of more than 400 people. Hanging on the wall in front of him a banner reads simply ‘A wall upon your chest’ – quoting revolutionary Palestinian poet Tawfiq Ziad. Among the crowd is Fuad Abu Wardi, celebrating his 77th birthday in the village from which he was forcibly displaced as a child. Others, such as 14 year old violinist, Antonio Shakour, were born into exile two generations later, yet as he plays his rendition of Fayrooz’s ‘Nassam Alayna el-Hawa’ (‘The air breezed upon us’) it’s clear that his displacement has not replaced his Palestinian-Arab identity.

Nestled high in the Galilean hills, just 3 or 4 kilometres south of the Lebanese border, the historic Palestinian village of Kufr Bir’im was forcibly depopulated by Zionist forces in October 1948. Despite initial Israeli promises and an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in favour of the villagers’ return they remained in enforced exile, owners of more false promises. Many found refuge in the nearby village of Jish. Israeli fighter jets bombed the village in 1953 in an attempt to deny return into eternity, only the village church remained structurally intact.

Israel declared parts of Bir’im a Nature Reserve and National Park in 1965, another Zionist strategy that attempted to secure the future of the village in the hands of its colonisers. Three settlements were also built on its lands but displaced villagers continued to ‘visit’ the village whenever possible and struggle actively for their return. In 1972 the internally displaced community began reconstruction work on the church and staged a sit-in protest led by village elders which was brought to a violent end by an Israeli police operation during which several people were injured and 20 arrested.

The community collectively staged its first summer camp for exiled children of the village in Kufr Bir’im in 1984. These annual camps continued until 2013 when, following the summer camp which ran under the banner ‘I declare my return’, villagers refused to leave the camp after its completion. Bir’im was developing a model of practical return that had begun in the nearby village of Iqrit a year earlier. Ever since then, groups of Bir’im’s internally displaced refugees have been sleeping in tents that have been erected alongside the church in the remains of the village school.

Now, nearly 8 months after this return movement progressed in to its latest phase, and following two evacuation orders issued by the current Israeli authorities, another legal battle is in the courts. Returnees launched the current legal battle not in the belief of receiving justice within the Israeli legal system but as a strategic decision to buy time whilst further strategising continues. Rather than wait for further empty promises to materialise the community retains a permanent presence in their village, refusing to leave. Electricity supplies have been run in to the old schoolhouse where the tents have been erected and internet connections have been established for social media and mobilisation work. Such modern technologies highlight elements of what return must include in today’s world – the clock is not being turned back but rather forward. Birim’s community has again taken up direct action as a tool within their popular struggle and contextualised it within the wider Palestinian struggle for fundamental rights.

The first of a series of planned cultural festivals was staged in Kufr Birim on March 15th. More than 400 Palestinians from various cities and villages inside 1948 Palestine attended as did several musicians and artists. After the music had died down the majority of people left the village, leaving only a smaller group of ‘returnees’ – who talked long into the night and then slept in their village as they have done every night since August. Whether or not their current legal battle is ultimately successful, this collective ‘return’ movement shows that the new generation of internally displaced Palestinians have adopted the struggle for return from previous generations and that for them ‘calls’ for return have been replaced by creative strategising and popular direct action towards its implementation.

MEMO Photographer: Rich Wiles

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