A crumbling stone church, standing empty and sealed amid rubble and thistles, is all that remains of the Palestinian village that once perched on this rocky hilltop in northern Israel. In 1948, the villagers of Ikrit and those of Biram, a village a few miles further east, were asked by the Israeli Army to leave their homes for two weeks for ``security reasons.'' Thirty-nine years later, the surviving villagers and their descendants are still fighting to go home.
Ikrit and Biram have long been powerful symbols to Israeli Arabs of the Jewish state's failure to keep its promise to treat Arabs as equal citizens. Even former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, no champion of Israeli Arab rights, referred to Israel's failure to repatriate the villagers as ``an historic injustice.''
In recent years, it also has become a political issue, offering both the centrist Labor Party and the rightist Likud bloc the chance to win Arab votes that some political analysts believe may prove crucial in the next national elections, expected by November 1988. Israeli Arab voters control just enough seats in the Knesset, or parliament, that they might be able to tip the balance in favor of one major bloc or the other in a closely contested election.
In 1986, Cabinet minister Ezer Weizman, a Labor bloc member, proposed that the villagers be given back land close to their villages. This year, the Likud bloc's Moshe Arens outdid Mr. Weizman by formally proposing to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that the villagers be returned to their original village sites. Mr. Arens was hailed by a lawyer for the Biram villagers as their Moses, who was leading them to the promised land, just as Moses had led the Jews through 40 years in the wilderness.
But Arens' plan still must be discussed and voted on by the government before it can be implemented, and it faces many obstacles, including Mr. Shamir's personal opposition. Many Likud members and other Israelis fear that allowing the Ikrit and Biram villagers to return to their homes may set a precedent for hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948 and 1967 to press their claims for repatriation.
``If they have a promise that they would be allowed to return, then they should do it,'' acknowledges Boaz, a young Israeli whose kibbutz was built on lands taken from Biram. ``But many years have passed, and now it's a very big problem to put them back here. Justice is on their side. But 40 years later, justice doesn't matter.''
The villagers of Ikrit and Biram, however, say their case is unique.
The villagers welcomed the advancing Israeli Army into their villages and their homes in the tumultuous time that followed Israel's rebirth as a modern state. The people of Ikrit and Biram accepted Israeli citizenship, even as hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians fled or were driven from villages all over Palestine after Arab armies invaded, trying to strangle Israel at birth.
``I remember it all, how the Jewish soldiers entered our village, registered us all as Israeli citizens,'' recalls Elias Shukri, who was 10 at the time. ``Then an officer told us to leave our village, only for two weeks, for security reasons. Since then, we have asked only one thing: to return to our village.''
The officer asked the villagers to leave Biram on Nov. 13, 1948. When the villagers realized the Army had no intention of allowing them to return, they filed suit and won a 1951 decision from Israel's High Court that they should be allowed to return to their villages as soon as the security situation permitted their repatriation. Months after the decision was handed down, the Army bulldozed the two villages into piles of stone blocks.
Biram, a historical site that boasts ruins of an ancient Jewish synagogue, fared somewhat better than Ikrit. Most Palestinian homes were bulldozed, but the church was left intact and the site was handed over to the nature preservation society. Tourists who visit now are told by a sign in Hebrew and English that it is the location of a beautifully preserved ancient synagogue. No mention is made of the Palestinian village that once stood there.
The lands of both Ikrit and Biram were divided up shortly after the villages were evacuated and given to nearby Jewish settlements. The breakup of the villages was thorough, but the villagers seem still to consider all that has happened to them and their villages since 1948 as a reversible phenomenon.
The villagers cling to the court decision, using it as the legal claim that backs up the moral claim they have laid at the door of successive Israeli governments over the decades.
``I want my land, I want my property,'' says Mr. Shukri, who earned a law degree at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and has been pressing the village's case for the past 23 years. ``Why did they take my land from me and give it to another? Why did they take the land of my father and my grandfather? What gave them the right to take it from me and to give it to newcomers from Turkey or wherever?'' It is a question asked by hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians since 1948, and one that Israelis generally have no trouble answering.
What is troubling for Israelis about Ikrit and Biram is that in these cases, the standard response - we didn't take it, you fled - simply doesn't apply. These villagers, the High Court has acknowledged, did nothing to relinquish their claims to their land. On the contrary, they stayed in their homes, cooperated with the Israelis, and accepted citizenship.
Villagers of Ikrit speak with pride of the fact that 17 villagers have volunteered to serve in the Israeli Army over the years. (Military service is compulsory in Israel, but exemptions are automatically given to Arabs). One Ikrit villager died and three others have been injured fighting for Israel, villagers say.
Life since they were evacuated from their villages has been difficult, the people of Ikrit and Biram say.
``For years I have felt as a stranger outside the village,'' says Elias Bishara, an elderly man who grew up in Ikrit and started his family there. ``It's a very difficult feeling, being outside the village. I lost many things - my land, my home.''
About half the villagers of Biram, including Shukri's family, went to the neighboring village of Geish. The other half crossed the border into Lebanon. Today, there are about 3,000 people of Biram and their descendants scattered in villages inside Israel, according to Shukri. Another 3,000 villagers and their descendants are still in Lebanon.
``Those who left, left their land,'' says Shukri. ``But we did not leave our land. I don't agree that anyone has the right to take my land from me.''