“The war runs along several fronts, not only militarily, but it [is] also a battle over the minds of people... We are not trying to obliterate any other history–we are trying to say that we will not allow you [Israel] to erase ours”, Salman Abu Sitta explains in a soft, confident voice.
Resistance, especially through non-violence, has always been part of the Palestinian struggle against Zionist colonization.
In the midst of this struggle, Salman Abu Sitta has spent most of his life fashioning an arsenal of unconventional weapons to ensure that the land of Palestine and its people are never forgotten.
Over the course of half a century, Salman Abu Sitta has collected historical maps, documents, eyewitness accounts, hard data, and much more in order to categorically disprove much of Israel's claims to Palestine. Tapping into his knowledge of engineering, Salman Abu Sitta has also outlined a plan for the Palestinian population to–legally and physically–return to the homes they were expelled from since 1948.
Salman Abu Sitta was born to a prominent family in Beersheba in 1938. When he was ten, his family was among the first wave of refugees that flowed into Gaza, as the Zionist forces initiated their campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine. He was then sent to the prestigious al-Saidiya secondary school in Cairo, graduating at top rank in all of Egypt. He continued his education at Cairo University in the Faculty of Engineering, followed by a PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of London. It was in London that he began amassing maps and documents related to every inch of Palestine, embarking on a journey that would encompass the rest of his life.
In the ensuing decades, he was a member of the Palestinian National Council, worked as a researcher on refugee affairs, and authored hundreds of papers on the rights of Palestinian refugees, as well as five books, including the 700-page magnum opus that is the Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966. Recently, he founded the Palestine Land Society (PLS) to which he commits most of his energy. Due to his lifelong work, particularly his unwavering commitment to the Right of Return, Salman Abu Sitta is considered an icon and a treasure trove of information on Palestine. He spoke with Al-Akhbar at his modest office.
Yazan al-Saadi: What is PLS and what does it do?
Salman Abu Sitta: PLS, as our website clearly shows, is dedicated to the documentation of Palestine in terms of its land and its people, [which] involves the transformation of Palestine from pre-World War I until today, meaning the start, growth, and expansion of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine and what it did to the land, the people, and the records of the land and people.
YS: Why is PLS necessary? What makes it unique compared to other groups for Palestine?
SAS: If I were living in Palestine before World War I, I would see no need for [the organization] because people knew Palestine was their homeland and they lived in it. Therefore, there was no need for a confirmation of their identity and it would be taken for granted. However, with the advent of the Zionist project, it became very clear–now more than ever before–that it has three objectives, which are combined in a very unique colonial enterprise.
First, to take over the land of Palestine, and–as we know from the literature and subsequent events–also parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
Secondly, [the aim] is to get rid of the people. First, in 1948 through a series of massacres–almost 77 massacres and atrocities–and then by expulsion of the remaining population.
The third objective, which is known but rarely combated, is to erase the memory and history of Palestinians in Palestine. This has many justifications in the view of the Zionists. First, it seeks to prove the myth that Palestine is a 'land without people.’ Secondly, it shows to themselves and the very gullible West that they have a legitimate case in Palestine, arguing that they were the owners of the country some 2,000 years ago, which by all accounts is incorrect historically, and that they are justified in returning to 'an empty land.’
[David] Ben-Gurion started a new war against Palestinians immediately after signing the Armistice Agreement with Syria on July 20, 1949. He collected about two dozen Israeli Old Testament and Torah experts, geographers, surveyors, and so on and asked them to erase all Palestinians names and replace them with new Hebrew ones, preferably with some historical touch. So they did, and it took them ten years. The Israeli maps of the 1950s were nothing more than the British survey of Palestine maps overwritten in Hebrew. From 1960 onwards, the survey of Israel department started to issue maps devoid of all these original Palestinian names, and replaced with Hebrew ones.
We are now working on map of Palestine dated from 1596, taken from the tax register that was created for Palestine only a few years after the Ottoman rule began over the area.
This was to implant in the minds of Israelis, especially the younger generation, that this is ‘Israel’ and that these are original Hebrew names. When you ask young Israelis today about the names, they believe it was always like that. They do not know that beneath lay a Palestinian village.
The main objective of creating PLS is to restore Palestinian heritage, which was erased by Israelis. It is a small secret, indirect challenge to Ben-Gurion, who once said, “The old will die and the young will forget”. Well, the old will die of course but not before they told their children about their land. Before, when the old man told his son about the land, it was descriptive, it was poetic. Now, we [PLS] give them a physical map.
YS: You started documenting the history of Palestine from the age of 30. How effective is this type of resistance?
SAS: Actually, I was younger. I started doing this when I went to England for my PhD and there were so many references available about Palestine. After Oslo, I devoted more time to this and less time to my business. [By then] I had already accumulated a lot of documents, maps, photographs, old books, new books. At the moment, we probably have a total of around 10,000 items.
In general, knowledge about the Right of Return, what it means, whether it is an alternative to compensation, or if compensation is complementary to the Right of Return, and the question of where to return has had widespread application. This was furthered by two things.
First, many of our young generation are much more educated than their parents, so they research and enquire. They have this curiosity about their homeland, which comes from good education.
Secondly, this curiosity and this knowledge can be transmitted widely through the Internet. There is an aggregation of all these thoughts and ideas. When something happens like the war and destruction of Gaza or the destruction of Jenin camp, people can respond now and say, “Ha! We know why this happens on a day-to-day basis”. And they can dig back in history.
For example, there is this site called Palestine Remembered , which we did not create but cooperate with very closely. It has hundreds of thousands of young people who look for their village and even found relatives from their village.
The young generation, the children who threw stones during the First Intifada, are removed from the direct knowledge of Palestine. Their parents are not fedayeen anymore; the PLO is in disarray, and the American and Israeli pressure on the academic curriculum made it difficult to teach about Palestine in schools
Additionally, I made a map of Palestine, a poster showing all the depopulated villages that was reprinted–up to one and a half million copies in different countries.
We also did the Daleel Haq al-Awda (The Right of Return Guide), which only last month had five thousand copies printed in refugee camps throughout Jordan. Before that it was printed and distributed in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. Young people are eager to know, and we feed them that information.
One thing that was surprising for me after so many years of doing the Atlas of Palestine, which shows 50,000 place names, was that we don't really need to argue about Balfour or show title deeds to our land to prove that we exist. We simply needed to show the historical maps of Palestine.
The 50,000 names are the alphabet of the social history of Palestinians. Every single name has been crafted by the people themselves in their daily lives, which shows that there was a vibrant society over thousands and thousands of years. All these names were not created by a committee like Ben-Gurion's.
We are now working on a map of Palestine dated from 1596, taken from the tax register that was created for Palestine only a few years after the Ottoman rule began over the area. We tried to find whether these names in the sixteenth century relate to the names we have today or had until the Nakba [the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians]. So far, 90 percent of the names are the same. Those that are not, were changed in a very elementary way.
Even deeper in history, we found a book by the Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, in which he wrote in the year 313 AD about the localities in Palestine. This book was written in old Greek and Latin, but luckily it was translated into English about five years ago. I have analyzed that book and plotted the names of these localities as they were in the year 313 and compared them with our atlas. Again, all these names are the same, with slight variations in spelling. It is remarkable that these villages existed for at least two thousand years.
The tragic part of the story is that we identified 139 names of these old villages that were destroyed by Israel in 1948. No one moved a finger when 139 villages, which existed at least [as far back as] the time of Jesus Christ, were destroyed systematically.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Israelis realized that destroying Palestinian villages blindly was not a good thing. So they created the Israel Archaeological Society for the express purpose of going to these villages before their destruction to keep any item of use in carving and creating a Jewish history in Palestine and to destroy the rest. Not only Ottoman and Arab, but also Byzantine and Roman.
This destruction was deliberate and planned to remove any history other than a Jewish one, and to create a false history. We heard no outcry about this loss to human heritage from UNESCO or Western quarters, which regularly wave the banner of civilization.
Hamas is interested in the product, but nobody had a role in creating it. Fatah had a scant interest. I regret that nobody helped.
The war runs along several fronts, not only militarily but also a battle over the minds of people. The Israelis want to create in the minds of Jews first and others second that they have a legitimate history and geography in Palestine. We try to say that this is not the case. We are on the defensive. We are not trying to obliterate any other history–we are trying to say that we will not allow you [Israel] to erase ours.
YS: During the course of working on this full-time since the 1990s, how successful has this work been and what changes have you seen?
SAS: To say we are completely successful is an exaggeration because we are not only fighting against Israeli influence in the West but also against the Crusaders’ heritage claims over Palestine. There are ideas in the West regarding Palestine that have been frozen since the Crusader times: “These are the Saracens, they have taken our Jerusalem. They are savages and we are the civilized ones”.
The Israelis built their strategy on top of the Crusaders’ image of Palestine. Hence they crafted the oxymoronic idea of a Judeo-Christian heritage. It’s quite funny; it’s like a Capitalist-Communist alliance.
I definitely think there has been progress. I can see it in a number of things. For example, our atlas is available in universities in Western Europe and the United States. Almost every week, I get questions from a PhD student or a research organization. We are also accredited by the UN and they distribute our maps as credible documents.
Among the elite and among those who are interested, we made inroads. Of course, with the elite, there are groups such as universities and research centers that are anti-Palestinian and those people are keen to get our publications, as well. So far, none of them, including Benny Morris, disputed much of the facts we have published. They only questioned our motives for doing so, which is fine by me.
What worries me now is that after Oslo, the young generation, the children who threw stones during the First Intifada, are removed from the direct knowledge of Palestine. Why? Their parents are not fedayeen anymore; the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is in disarray, and the American and Israeli pressure on the academic curriculum made it difficult to teach about Palestine in schools–this is most notable in Jordan and the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas.
We should represent Palestine in the proper way in international fora. Until we have a new elected Palestinian National Council with new leadership, this is not going to happen.
I think PLS should now direct our efforts toward education. In this regard, I am very pleased that we made an important breakthrough. After several discussions, UNRWA agreed to receive a gift of 700 copies of the atlas from us for each of the 700 schools they administer. I only hope that UNRWA school teachers will make much use of the atlas.
YS: How did the idea for Atlas of Palestine start?
SAS: It started as a culmination of efforts to render Ben-Gurion's plan useless and we combined our wealth of information into one book. I think the atlas is probably one of the few references that combines all this information in one volume. We did not invent anything; we only compiled information from so many countries, so many sources, so many periods and put them together.
In Part One of the atlas, we conducted an analysis of the information and what it means. In this regard, the compendium by Mustapha Dabbagh, Biladuna Filisteen (Palestine, Our Country), is an extremely valuable reference. Waleed Khalidi, the well-known Palestinian historian, produced a volume called, All That Remains, which was another good source for us.
YS: Was there any involvement by other Palestinian groups or political organizations like Hamas, Fatah or the PLO?
SAS: I wish that the answer was yes; I regret that the answer is no.
YS: Even presently?
SAS: Hamas is interested in the product, but nobody had a role in creating it. Fatah had a scant interest. I regret that nobody helped–not from a political point of view, which we do not want, but from a financial point of view. We received no financial help except from a couple of concerned individuals in small amounts. But I received a lot of volunteer efforts from young and interested people.
The sad thing about people who claim seats in the PLO today is that even after the product [the atlas] was finished, they never bothered to buy copies. They looked at it, some people knew about it, and some asked to be gifted, but no one made a large-scale effort to buy and distribute it to schools.
YS: What are the legal implications of this atlas?
SAS: The implications are, and could be, even more immense. I have a few cases to share.
First, a young man in the negotiation department of the PLO was given the task of finding where the Armistice Line was along the West Bank in the Latrun area. He wrote to me, saying that he did not find a better source than the atlas and we gave him all further information we had. He did not do so as a representative of an official body, but as a private individual doing research, so we helped.
The PLO's situation is pathetic because, after Oslo, there has been an attempt to dilute it and replace it with the PA. Thanks to the Israeli occupation, the PA has become a sub-contractor.
The other example involved ALECSO (The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization), which had a problem with Israel in regards to Tel al-Qadi, who wanted to register it as an Israeli heritage site with UNESCO. We produced a report about the geography of the place and its history. I do not know if this report was the only instrument, but apparently it gave UNESCO cause to hesitate and they rejected Israel's request. That was a victory–perhaps an indirect victory.
Another example involved the UN seeking to record the losses and damages from the Apartheid Wall on villages in Palestine. I contacted a small unit in Ramallah, within the Palestinian Authority (PA), and I discovered that they had no information on this topic. Therefore, we supplied them with the details of these villages, the land area, and how they are affected by the wall. They were very pleased with it. Yet, they could not find other ways to benefit from the information, nor were they willing to approach us officially at the highest level to make an agreement with us.
YS: Why is that so?
SAS: I will let you be witness to a case that just occurred yesterday [July 23]. I discovered that the UN has an organization called the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN). It is a world consortium of experts on place names across the world. They will hold a conference in New York from July 31 until August 11 and member states are represented in this event to standardize place names.
I wrote to the vice-chairman about Palestine, saying we have 50,000 names produced. He was amazed and said that this should have been introduced by the Palestinian delegate and asked us why we did not get in touch with the responsible representative. So we contacted the ministry of planning who in turn stated that they were interested in working with us, and we asked them to have the minister contact us in order to establish a formal agreement with PLS to know who should do what.
With the weakness of Arab governments and with the absence of true representation of Palestinians in the PLO, the Israeli regime has gone wild.
The person I contacted seemed like a nice person, but she is trying her best in a desert and no one is helping her. I told her I need some formal agreement defining our role with the ministry. Moreover, their interest, because they are under the paw of the Israeli occupation, was only in the West Bank. All our work deals with the lost part of Palestine and they were not interested.
I wanted her to take two copies of the Atlas, one Arabic and one English, and put them in the exhibition in New York for the experts to see. Now, I want you to be a witness to see if this has happened. Salman Abu Sitta picks up the phone and calls the ministry.
Our problems mainly come from us. Even the victim is responsible for fighting back. I do not blame the thief; I blame the house owner for not locking the door.
A secretary answers and says that the representative is at home and proceeds to give Salman Abu Sitta the representative's cell phone number. He dials it, the representative responds and says she needs to consult her superiors.
This is a problem I have all the time. I need to have access to international fora, officially. I cannot. I believe we should represent Palestine in the proper way in these international fora. Until we have a new elected Palestinian National Council (PNC) with new leadership, this is not going to happen.
YS: Do you think there should be a reform or an update to the PNC?
SAS: Absolutely. All our work has led to two conclusions. One, to educate and inform our people about their rights, which has been successful in several areas and is not yet completed. Two, [we must] empower these people to defend their rights. Empowerment is missing at the moment.
The Right of Return movement, on which we have worked very hard to establish with others, is now generally well-understood and alive in the minds of the people, but you need legal power to represent it. That can only occur if a new PNC is democratically elected to represent eleven million people from which new leadership will emerge, and this leadership must be in every international fora.
At the moment, the PLO's situation is pathetic because, after Oslo, there has been an attempt to dilute it and replace it with the PA. Thanks to the Israeli occupation, the PA has become a sub-contractor. The whole Palestinian world is agitated because those people in Ramallah do not represent us and they do not even represent those in the West Bank because their term has expired.
Even then, the West Bank population are only 18 percent of Palestinians. What about the other 82 percent that are not represented? Seven million refugees, they are bigger in size than Jordan, than Lebanon, and they have no official representation. Therefore, it is imperative that a PNC be elected even though it has problems of proper representation in some areas. But it will still be better than what we have now.
YS: Is there work being done for that aim?
SAS: A lot. We, at another organization called the Right of Return Congress, held a conference in London as early as 2003 and in Beirut in 2007. Now we have piles and piles of correspondence and communications with everyone concerned. But at the moment this is a hostage of national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
I think this [national reconciliation] is a farce, because Hamas and Fatah do not represent more than two to three percent of Palestinians. Secondly, a national reconciliation between them will only divide the cake between them and not among others. Thirdly, if we have a PNC, national reconciliation will become irrelevant because it will become a subject to be resolved by one of the local committees within the PNC and not at the doorsteps of Arab intelligence services.
Israel is eating up the West Bank. They are making it into a multitude of Gazas or concentration camps.
We [PLS] are trying to fill the gaps. There is a complete absence of official Palestinian representation in defending our cases in every respect, even geography and other things like that. Why did ALESCO come to us to help with Tel al-Qadi? Because there is no one else.
YS: Currently, you have an expansion of the Israeli colonial project, an acceleration of its repression, the PLO is in tatters, Hamas and Fatah are at each others' throats, neighboring Arab countries are under the thralls of uprisings and major changes, and significant shifts to power dynamics. Considering all these factors, how viable is the Right of Return and what is its future?
SAS: All the elements you mentioned are preparation for things to come. All of them indicate, on the face of it, that the Right of Return is a very far from implementation. Paradoxically, this situation, which you described very clearly, brings the Right of Return closer.
With the weakness of Arab governments [and] with the absence of true representation of Palestinians in the PLO, the Israeli regime has gone wild. It actually removed every mask from its face. It became openly racist; its rabbis are decreeing that they should kill Palestinian children; it expels people from Jerusalem.
All this means is that the true nature of Israel, which we as Palestinian have been telling the world about since 1948, has now become clearer by virtue of Israeli government actions and statements–to the extent that American Jews are saying this is too much, or at least are trying to make it seem palatable in some way.
Also, Israel is eating up the West Bank. They are making it into a multitude of Gazas or concentration camps. The Palestinians today in Palestine, within all areas from 1948 to the West Bank, are comparable to the number of Jews, if you exclude 400,000 non-Jews living in Israel. I do not want to play the numbers game because even if the Palestinians were 10 percent, this is no reason for annihilating them. But the large numbers make the case clearer.
My feeling is that our case in representing Israel as it is has become much easier, because the people who give us the evidence are the Israelis themselves. Therefore, when you say you want freedom, people will listen. Most of the world are aware of our situation. The West, where the Israeli lobby derives its strength, will change over time.
To move the meaning of injustice from removing the Apartheid Wall or removing the occupation to a new situation of “I want to live in my home” becomes possible or understandable.
[While] most of the world are against the occupation of the West Bank, there are very few who can connect this to the same principle of justice of returning home. I do not necessarily care if its one or a hundred states, but I do care about the basic human right in which everyone should be able to live in their home. I do not want to fall into that trap of one state or nothing. I usually ask people who call for one state: Do you want everyone to live in their homes freely or not? That is what we should strive for. We are closer to implementing the Right of Return in ways that the Israelis did not intend for.
Salman Abu Sitta is the founder and president of Palestine Land Society.