Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 2003, pages 48, 85

Christianity and the Middle East

The Right of Return: An Issue of Concern to Christians

By Fred Strickert

With the road map accepted as a framework for further peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, one of the more controversial issues remains the right of return for Palestinians who fled or were forced out of former British Mandate Palestine in 1948, at the creation of the state of Israel.

This past May 8, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that the Palestinians must renounce their demand for the right of return before he would enter peace negotiations. This was echoed by cabinet members on May 25 as they narrowly voted approval for the new Middle East peace plan.

The issue affects nearly 4 million people who are descendents of the 700,000 Palestinians denied a return to their homes after the 1948 war—despite U.N. Resolution 194, which called for a solution to the refugee problem.

Numerically, Muslims make up the vast majority of refugees. When the number of Christian refugees is taken as a percentage, however, the effect on the church is noteworthy. Among all the refugees in 1948, 50,000 were Christian families, many of whom lived in the towns of Jaffa, Lydda, Ramle, and throughout the Galilee. A significant portion also came from the western part of Jerusalem. Refugees made up 35 percent of the Christian population of the holy land.

A Refugee Bishop

In his recently published book, Witnessing for Peace: In Jerusalem and in the World (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, June 2003), Jerusalem Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan describes himself as a refugee bishop who continues to carry his refugee card as a reminder of his roots and of his commitment to speak out for a just solution to the refugee issue.

"My father was a refugee from Beersheba who came to Jerusalem for safety during that period just before the armistice, when the Jewish Haganah was attacking Arab communities to expand Jewish land holdings," writes Younan. "As for my mother, her home was in the western part of Jerusalem on Mandelbaum Street. That story is well known. Her family, as many Christian families, assumed that Jerusalem was to be an international city with protection guaranteed by the world community. Yet beginning already in 1947, the Israeli Irgun, led by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, began attacking Arab communities. An attack on December 13, 1947 in residential sections left several dozen dead. On January 5, the Haganah blew up the Semiramis Hotel in another residential section killing 20 civilians. And so it went. By April 30, 1948—two weeks before the declaration of Independence of Israel and before the entry of Arab armies—all Palestinian quarters in West Jerusalem had been occupied by Israel, and all Arab residents had been driven out.

"My mother describes her experience as if it happened yesterday," Younan continues. "The Jewish Haganah drove up and down the streets with loud speakers blaring. The instructions were that all Arabs were to leave their houses for their own protection. The Haganah promised that it would only be a temporary leave—two weeks at most. Quickly my mother and her neighbors gathered up whatever belongings they could carry in a suitcase and left. Only three minutes later as she was making her way toward the old city, there was a loud explosion. Turning they could see smoke rising from her very own home. It had received a direct hit by a shell from Jewish forces. Her entire neighborhood would soon be leveled to the ground. In a matter of minutes, her whole life had changed."

Similar Refugee Stories

Nor is Younan's story unique. Other Palestinian Christian leaders have shared their own stories with American audiences in recent years. Rev. Naim Ateek—Anglican priest and the founder of Sabeel—was an 11-year-old boy in Beisan (Beth Shan) when the Jewish militia entered the city on May 12, 1948—just two days before the State of Israel was declared. He describes how his father and elder brother were rounded up with other Arabs in the center of town and informed that they had two hours to evacuate their families.

Ateek recounts this event in his book, Justice and only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Orbis: Maryknoll, NY, 1997): "As people gathered at the center of town, the soldiers separated us into two groups, Muslims and Christians. The Muslims were sent across the Jordan River to the country of Transjordan (now Jordan). The Christians were taken on buses, driven to the outskirts of Nazareth, and dropped off there, since Nazareth had not yet been occupied by the Zionists. Within a few hours, our family had become refugees, driven out of Beisan forever."

Anglican Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal also experienced the war of 1948 as a child. The name Abu El-Assal means "Father of Honey," referring to the traditional family business of bee-keeping in Nazareth, where he was born in 1938. As he recounts in Caught in Between (SPCK: London, 1998), in 1948 the family was in Lebanon with his father, who was there on business. Their property was turned over to the Custodian of Absentee property and the family was refused the right to return home. In 1949, the family "illegally" crossed the border to reenter Israel and lived with an aunt. They were threatened with expulsion. Finally in 1958 the State of Israel gave the family citizenship, recognizing that the father had been out of the country on official business with a British company.

Elias Chacour

Perhaps the best known refugee story from this period is that of Father Elias Chacour from the village of Kufor Biram in northern Galilee. This May he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Traveling throughout the Midwest he told audiences about his experience made famous in the book Blood Brothers, now republished in a second edition after 20 years (and available from the AET Book Club).

Father Chacour describes how his and other families in Kufor Biram showed hospitality to Jews coming to the area following the Holocaust. They were moved by their stories and could not believe how anyone would have treated them as the Nazis did. The villagers had no concern that their lives would change. The Israel partition plan of 1947 had designated northern Galilee, with its high Arab population, as part of the new Palestinian state.

The newly elected prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, however, announced to his cabinet that Galilee would become "clean" and "empty" of Arabs. This was carried out by Operation Hiram—a 60-hour campaign from Oct. 29-31, 1948 designed, according to a New York Times article, "to eliminate the Arab-held bulge descending into Galilee from Lebanon." On the night of Oct. 30, area villages were bombed, including Jish, just two miles to the southwest, and a horrible massacre took place in Safsaf. Still, the villagers trusted the Israeli army when they were told to leave their homes "temporarily" for "security reasons." Some hid in caves, others went to the now-deserted village of Jish, others still went north into Lebanon. None were ever allowed to return to their home village. Families were split because those heading north were never allowed back into Israel. When the armistice lines were drawn, Biram and surrounding villages were part of Israel.

The residents of Biram chose the legal system in an attempt to retrieve their land and homes. The case went to the Israeli Supreme Court which ruled in their favor, stating that they be allowed to return to their homes in Biram by December, 1953.The villagers packed their bags and made the hike in order to be home by Christmas. However, the Israeli army had other plans. In spite of the court ruling, they bombed the village so that not a single home was left standing. When the villagers arrived, not only did they face this utter disappointment, but they were once again expelled from the land which was then allotted to a newly established Kibbutz Bara'am.

As recently as 1997, former residents of Biram have presented formal appeals to the Israeli government.In October 2001 the Israeli Security Cabinet ruled once again against the return of the residents of Biram.

The stories of Younan, Ateek, Riah and Chacour all illustrate that the right of return is an issue which affects Christians as well as Muslims. These are only four stories. The fate of over 400 destroyed Palestinian villages have been documented in All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, edited by Walid Khalidi and published in 1992 by the Institute for Palestinian Studies.

Church Land Holdings

In addition to private family holdings, the right of return also applies to the Palestinian Church in general. Under the British Mandate, 10 percent of all landholdings of historic Palestine were in the name of church agencies and institutions—greater in 1945 than Jewish land ownership, estimated at about 6 percent. The Latin Patriarch and the Armenians had land holdings going back centuries; the Lutheran Church lost Talitha Kumi School on King George Street and the Schneller School west of the old city. The whole area where the Israeli Knesset and the Shrine of the Book Museum is located was a tract of land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. These are just a few examples of the extensive holdings taken from the church in 1948.

In some cases, expatriate church leaders have made deals with the Israeli government without the knowledge of and at the expense of the local church. In chapter 7 of his book, Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000 (Melisende: London, 2001), Donald Wagner describes a number of efforts on the part of Palestinian Christians to challenge these decisions. Many believe that this is a primary reason that the Israeli government has refused to recognize Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos, elected in August 2000, who has sought to negotiate more favorable leases. For the most part, however, church land holdings have been taken without compensation.

The Right of Return

On Dec. 11, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution stating "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest possible date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." Again on Nov. 22, 1967, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 called "for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem."

The inclusion of the right of return in the road map for Israeli-Palestinian Peace is only to be expected. It is a significant issue for Christians as well as Muslims.

Fred Strickert is professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.