IQRIT, ISRAEL -- There is no sign marking the turnoff to Iqrit. There is no mention of it on contemporary Israeli road maps. And there is no village.

All that remains of what was once an Arab Christian village is the church, poised on a hill above cow pastures, and a tree-shrouded cemetery. The homes have long since been turned to rubble, overgrown with weeds.

Yet the village of Iqrit lives on in the memory of the Arabs who were expelled from it by the Israeli army in November 1948. The people from Iqrit and another Arab Christian village, Biram, were promised by the army that they could return in "two weeks." But the army's promise remains unfulfilled 45 years later.

The pledge continues to stir controversy in Israel. Although the Jewish state has firmly rejected demands from Arab refugees for the right to return to homes from which they fled or were expelled in the 1948 war, the case of Iqrit and Biram has torn at the conscience of many Israelis because their Christian residents did not run away, were not hostile and were given a commitment they could go back.

The unkept promise to the villagers of Iqrit and Biram illuminates some of the complex psychology of the long conflict between Jews and Arabs over this mountainous terrain.

For Israeli Jews, the case goes to the heart of deeply held fears that some day Arabs will try to return to their lands. If just two villages can go back, they fear, it will set a precedent for others.

But from the perspective of the villagers, the case of Iqrit and Biram illustrates how Israel has failed to live up to basic promises it made to those Arabs who did not fight and flee in 1948. They became citizens of the Jewish state, but they believe Israel has never delivered on its pledge to treat them equally with its Jewish citizens.

"The name of the game is fear and myths, and each side bringing to the story the deepest fears of their existence here," said Dedi Zucker, a member of Israel's parliament. "It is the Israeli establishment who knew, and which knows now, that there is no security problem, not any problem of any sort" to justify the expulsion, he said, "just the fear of setting a precedent."

"But the Arabs see it as a wound, a symbolic one, a promise to come back after two weeks which has not been fulfilled and is a symbol of how they were cheated. That's what the whole story is about. . . . Now, the question is, how can justice be made for both sides?"

Naef Khoury, a journalist whose parents were among the Iqrit evacuees, recalled: "The government all the time said to us, we want you to go back. Then they came up with all the reasons why we could not go back."

The major reason offered by Israel over the years dates back to the Arab exodus in the 1948 war. Although estimates vary, between 600,000 and 1 million Arabs then living in Palestine fled or were expelled by the Israeli forces. Many of their villages were later razed and their lands turned over to Israeli Jews in the new state. To this day, Arab demands for a "right of return" to these lands unleash powerful negative emotions in Israel.

"The right of return evokes essentially the destruction of the state of Israel as a Jewish state," said Michael Oren, a historian and director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee. "It's not just houses and fields. The main issue is, it would be demographic suicide. There are now, according to the Palestinians, about 4 million {Palestinians} in the immediate diaspora, and if all of them were to pick up and come back to their original places, or where their fathers and grandfathers were born, you are talking about the end of Israel as a Jewish state."

When Golda Meir, as prime minister, studied the request of the villagers to return in 1972, she decided against it, saying it could set a precedent for others to make similar demands.

In fact, the villagers of Iqrit and Biram did not become refugees, or fight against the new state in 1948. They hold Israeli citizenship and today are scattered in nearby villages and towns in Israel.

They have won support for their cause from a broad range of politicians over the years, and Zucker said there is a clear majority in parliament in their favor. Israel's Supreme Court said 43 years ago that the expulsion was unjustified. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, during his Li-kud bloc's 1977 election campaign, expressed sympathy for the plight of the villagers, and several Likud Party cabinet ministers tried to resolve their complaints in the 1980s.

But for all the statements of goodwill, permission to return never materialized.

When Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992, he and his leftist coalition partners signed a pact that included a promise to rectify the grievances of the villagers. But so far, little has come of it, except for the appointment of a committee of ministers that is due to report at the end of March. If the government fails to act, Zucker, chairman of the parliament's Law and Constitution panel, is vowing to push legislation allowing the villagers to return.

The displaced villagers "are paying the price for the stubbornness of all the Israeli governments since 1948, which have found it difficult to admit the terrible mistake and wrong caused to the innocent citizens of the two villages," Zucker and two colleagues wrote to Rabin.

The two villages, situated near the Lebanese border, were caught up in a 1948 campaign by Israeli forces to clear the country's borders of Arab villages. Iqrit, which then had a mostly Catholic population of 500, and Biram, with a population of 1,050, mostly Maronite Christians, had not been armed during the war and did not resist when the Israeli soldiers arrived.

Yousef Atalla, now 67, was a young farmer in Iqrit at the time. "The army came and said, 'Because you are a Christian village, and we want to save you, we have to remove you for two weeks only -- and then you can come back,' " Atalla recalled recently in an interview in Haifa.

The Iqrit villagers were taken, in military vehicles, to Rama, another Christian village farther from the border, which had been partly evacuated by fleeing Arabs. "We believed the soldiers," Atalla said. "We left everything in the village."

The army also ordered Biram evacuated, but some of the villagers hid in nearby wadis, hoping to return quickly. It was winter and seven children died of the cold, according to historian Benny Morris. Eventually, all the villagers were transferred to Jish, a nearby Arab village. They were temporarily housed in some abandoned Muslim dwellings and were promised they could return in two weeks.

According to Morris, the border-clearing operation was carried out by the army but only approved later by the Israeli government. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion suggested the villagers be told Israel would consider allowing them back "when the frontier is secured," but the green light never came. In the period just after the war, the region was under military government, and the villagers' repeated requests to return were denied on "security" grounds.

"There was no resistance and no war in this area," said Afif Ibrahim, who was 2 years old when his family left Biram and is now a spokesman for the villagers. "There was no reason to transfer the citizens for military reasons, as they said." According to Ibrahim, at the time of the expulsion, the Biram residents had taken part in the census of the new state and were registered as Israeli citizens, distinguishing them from refugees.

In 1951, the residents of Iqrit brought suit before the Supreme Court, which said it could see no justification for the prolonged delay in the villagers' return. But it also said they would have to get permission from the military authorities before they could go back.

The army never gave it.

In the early 1950s, both villages were destroyed by the army, except for cemeteries and churches. The area is now a national park. But in a legacy of the past, Iqrit and Biram are still technically defined by Israel as "closed military zones" at night, so the villagers will not return, although in practice they can use the churches by day.

The village farmlands -- 4,000 acres in Iqrit and 3,053 in Biram -- were parceled out to Jews on the new collective farms that were established along the frontier in the early '50s. Today, some descendants of the expelled Arabs say they would settle for returning to their villages without demanding all the land back.

But there has been strong resistance from some in the Jewish communities, who say they fear they would be uprooted. "They have been living there for 45 years, and they did not commit the expulsion" of the villagers, Zucker said. "They are afraid they will have to pay a price, and it will become a precedent that the Jews will be evacuated."

However, two of the Jewish collective farms have said they would welcome the Arabs back. "We feel very bad," said Ely Ben-Gal, secretary of Kibbutz Baram. "We think they have the right to come back to their village." When the kibbutz was established in 1949, he said, the founders were not told whose lands they were given.

"At the beginning, we thought it was a legal nationalization," Ben-Gal said. "When we found out it wasn't, and the Arabs said they wanted to come back to the village, it wasn't so easy. We had a vote, and the majority said they are ready" to give the lands back to the Arabs.

"When you speak about the right of return, and about the Arabs who fought the state of Israel and left, then it's clear you are speaking about the destruction of the state of Israel," Ben-Gal said. "But in the case of Iqrit and Biram, it's not about the right of return. They are here."

"It's quite ridiculous," he added, "We are a people who came back to the land after 2,000 years. How can we believe people will forget their homes in just 40 years?"