On the eve of declaring statehood on 14 May 1948, Zionist forces expelled half of the population of what became Israel before the state was created and while the British Mandate government was supposedly protecting the people and land of historic Palestine. When the British evacuated and the Zionist leaders proclaimed statehood, they "got an instant gift" by way of "a land emptied of its people but not its infrastructure", said Salman Abu Sitta, founder and president of the London-based Palestine Land Society, in a briefing to the DC-based Palestine Center on 27 May 2005.
As shown in Salman Abu Sitta's 428-page, full-color Atlas of Palestine 1948 (London: Palestine Land Society, 2005), close documentation of the events from March 1948 to April 1949 contradicts the common claim that Jews were defending themselves against the Arab invasion. In fact, the opposite was true, said Salman Abu Sitta. The Arabs came to rescue what was left in Palestine and failed to do so. The brutal armed struggle that had been building since the 1930s in historic Palestine erupted in the spring of 1948 and led to the depopulation of 675 Arab Palestinian villages and the expulsion of 935,000 Palestinians (according to data current to 1948), or half of the population within what became Israel. Salman Abu Sitta noted that, as the Atlas shows through 27 references from Israeli sources, 70-plus massacres by Jewish nationalist forces encouraged Arab flight in 1948. He noted that in May 1948 there were at least 1,113 Arab Palestinian towns and villages and 183 Jewish settlements, located mostly in urban areas around the coast. Only 99 of those towns and villages remain today.
Salman Abu Sitta argued that the myth that Palestine was a land without a people was "not only false but a wicked lie in order to make Palestinians homeless". While he did not discuss it in his presentation, his own family fled their home in Beir al-Sabe' (Beersheba) in 1948 when he was 8 years old. Salman Abu Sitta argued that one of the primary reasons why Arab Palestinians living in the region rejected the Partition Plan (UN Resolution-181, 29 November 1947), which was outlined as a solution to Britain's inability to fulfill its mandate, was that the Partition Plan would have given 55.5 percent of the land to a section of the population who only owned 5.4 percent of the land. By 1948, Jews constituted one-third (32 percent) of the total population, up from nine percent in 1914.
The Atlas of Palestine 1948 relies on the historic maps drawn by British and French cartographers in the early 1900s, aerial photographs taken by German Air Force (1917-18) and the Royal Air Force (1945-46), and 55 detailed charts and tables based on records maintained by the British Survey of Palestine Department, whose purpose was to implement the Balfour Declaration and determine which land could be given to Jews for settlement, thereby allowing more Jewish immigration to Palestine, said Salman Abu Sitta.
Salman Abu Sitta was categorical in his attribution of the British government's intent in colonizing and mapping Palestine. "A map is a birth certificate of a place... an identity card. When you make a map like that, you implicitly indicate you own a place". He argued that the way the borders were created was “to establish land for Jewish immigration and to exclude land from the Arab world". While the Zionists had only claimed 11 percent of historic land in their declaration of statehood, the borders of Israel that resulted from the armed conflict of 1948 and the 1949 Armistice Line incorporated more than 77 percent of the land controlled by the British Mandate into the new state of Israel, including 460 Palestinian villages. The Armistice Line dissected an additional 111 Arab Palestinian villages. This was reminiscent, said Salman Abu Sitta, of the way the British and French High Commissioners had divided the land in the 1920s, dissecting 23 villages in historic Palestine, without thought to the lives of the people and their access to their water and land resources.
Within the region that became Israel, "Palestinians made up over half the population but had no say in the political make-up of the state", said Salman Abu Sitta. After statehood was declared on 15 May, the Zionist Jewish leaders gained control of everything left behind by the British, including a total of 2,700 elements of the British Mandate's infrastructure, said Salman Abu Sitta. This included nearly 2,000 miles of first-class roads, 624,000 miles of railroads, 41 railway stations, 31 airports, 33 hospitals, 15 post offices, 37 military camps (including unused supplies and ammunition), 99 police stations and posts, 350 schools, 1,984 Christian and Muslim religious buildings (not including those in Jerusalem), and 3,649 sources of water (wells, springs, cisterns, etc.). Also lost to the Palestinians were the "intangible forms of infrastructure", said Salman Abu Sitta, including the civic records maintained by the British Mandate government and the certificates of birth, death, school, and land ownership.
One of the most historically destructive actions that David Ben Gurion, the head of the Zionist struggle for statehood and Prime Minister of Israel from 1948-54, did to establish Jewish dominance over the Arab population and land from a historical point of view was to create a committee of scholars, geographers, and theologians in the same week of February 1949 in which Israel signed its armistice agreement with Syria, whose goal was to "erase" all the names used in historic Palestine for the past five thousand years and to create new Hebrew names. "They wanted to make these names a symbol of the old link with Palestine, but unfortunately they could not find genuine Hebrew names for more than five percent of the names previously used", said Salman Abu Sitta. These new maps and new names erased the vocabulary of the life of the people, he added, because of the way the names had recorded historic events like weddings and battles.
Salman Abu Sitta argued that, despite the fact that UN Resolution-194 (11 December 1948) provided for Palestinian refugees' right of return and that their "inalienable right to return home" has been reconfirmed by the international community 135 times since then, the application of international law has enabled the return of refugees all over the world except in Palestine. Of the estimated six million Palestinians made refugees in 1948 and thereafter (or 85 percent of the region's total inhabitants at the time), only 4.2 million are registered with the UN and are counted today because of their need for the food aid and social services provided by the UN Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA), said Salman Abu Sitta. For internally displaced Palestinians who remained within Israel, only half of the 211 towns and villages that exist today are recognized, while the others are deprived from health care, roads, social and educational services, and so on, said Salman Abu Sitta.
Salman Abu Sitta noted that the people of depopulated villages went to only one or two places as refugees. "Villages did not split, even in adversity", said Salman Abu Sitta. "The Palestinian family and social structure was strong, as it is today".