On Saturday 23 November, I drove from Tiberias towards the Lebanese border, winding my way up and down through the forest-covered hills of the northern Galilee. I was headed to Iqrit, for a tour of the village and a showing of films by Larissa Sansour. 

The day was organised by Zochrot as part of their 48mm Film Festival. The festival is held each year around 29 November, marking the anniversary of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, and it features films dealing with the Nakba and the return of Palestinian refugees. As they explain on their website: ‘Shedding new light on historical and contemporary events, the films encourage us to think about the place we live in as well as imagine its future differently.’

Iqrit was one of the many Palestinian villages first evacuated and then destroyed during the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe). It was once a thriving Christian community built on a hillside, surrounded by flourishing agricultural land. All that remains now are the Greek Catholic church and cemetery. Church services, weddings, baptisms and funerals are still held there, but because it has been declared state land, no one can return to live. 

Naame Ashkar, an Iqrit resident, talks about the history of the village

During the tour, held bilingually in Hebrew and English, we heard about how the Israeli army arrived in the north in late October 1948 as part of Operation Hiram, the systematic destruction of Palestinian villages in the northern Galilee in order to secure the area bordering Lebanon and create an ‘Arab-free zone’. 

The residents were evacuated on 11 November, but were told their eviction would only be temporary and they’d soon be allowed to return. Some went to Lebanon, most others to Rameh, a village 20km south. However, on Christmas Eve 1951, the army destroyed the village.

In 1970, permission was finally granted to the former residents to continue to use their cemetery, and just three years ago, the church was given electricity. Over the years, there have been numerous pleas to the government to allow the community to return, especially as no other residences have been built there and the land lies unused. Some of these campaigns have been met with widespread popular support, but the government has ruled against it arguing it would set a precedent for other Palestinians wishing to return to their villages (many of which are, like Iqrit, also located in uninhabited areas throughout Israel). 

Now a small number of the community stay there on a rota basis, sleeping on makeshift beds in the church and nearby shelters. They are always happy to welcome visitors and share the story of Iqrit.

Zochrot, the NGO organising the tour, was founded in 2002 and consists mostly of Jewish Israelis who are committed to acknowledging and addressing the Nakba as a key to resolving the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their work is not only about naming the injustices of the past but also envisioning a decolonised future in which Palestinians and Israelis are fully integrated. They believe that granting Palestinians right of return has the potential to heal the rift between the two communities.

Through tours (offered for free to Israelis), teaching resources, conferences and seminars, and their film festival, Zochrot explores the practicalities of return. They help guide conversations about what needs to happen politically, socially and economically in order for the two communities to live side by side in peace. When I met with Rachel, the Director, and Liat, the Resource Development Coordinator, in October, they said one of their aims is to bring back hope to Israelis, to show that a peaceful shared society is possible.

They recognise that their aim requires an act of political imagination, and so they try to create a safe space for people to talk about their fears, ask questions, and express doubt. Removing the feeling of existential threat is a process that will take time. But they firmly believe the process needs to begin with remembering — not erasing — the Nakba, because the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a direct result of what happened when the state of Israel was formed. The name Zochrot is the feminine plural of ‘to remember’. Using the feminine form of the verb allows for an inclusive memory which is a tool for aspiring to a just and peaceful future, in contrast to the militaristic remembering of the public observances of Memorial and Independence Days.

After the tour at Iqrit, we gathered in the church to watch Sansour’s ‘Sci-fi Trilogy’, three short films imagining different futures for Palestinians. (You can see one part of it, the 9-minute ‘The Nation Estate’ online on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/47817604.)

In the final film in the trilogy, ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’, a resistance group seeks to influence history and support future claims to their vanishing lands by making underground deposits of elaborate porcelain, attributed to an entirely fictional civilisation. Through it Sansour explores the intersection of archeology, myth, history, identity, and belonging. (Trailer here: https://vimeo.com/148158228)

Sansour uses vast dystopian landscapes, desolate land covered by a darkening red-orange sky, to depict this disturbed and distorted future. Her portrayal of a future in which history is built on a false archeology was a sharp reminder of the difficult work Zochrot are doing to remember and rehumanise and make reparations for the deeply painful parts of this nation’s history. And yet, because of their hope and determination, their vision of the future is one which can still be tinted with rose. 

After the film, we emerged from the church to a red-orange sky as the sun set behind the darkening hills. I wondered for a moment if we had exited into Sansour’s dystopia. But as I watched, splashes of rose began to appear as well. Perhaps, because of people like those at Zochrot, a different future is indeed possible.

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If you would like to subscribe to Zochrot’s newsletter or find out how you can be involved in their work, you can do so via their website. Zochrot also offers tours for international groups, so if you are coming on a pilgrimage or as a small group, please consider going on one of their tours.

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