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  • Kings College 2008
Map and Grab:
The Foreign Quest for Palestinian Land
Dr.Salman Abu Sitta
Palestine, Britain and Empire c. 1841-1948
King’s College, London
May 14, 2008
(11.30 am in the presence of HRH Princess Anne)

As Napoleon crossed Sinai on his way to Palestine to build his “Orient Empire” in the winter of 1799, a young officer by the name of Jacotin was leading a small survey team to produce the first map of Palestine based on modern survey methods.

In the nineteenth century, there followed many German, Dutch, French and other Europeans who produced various maps of the Holy Land. Although the British were late comers, The Survey of Palestine, which was commissioned by the Palestine Exploration Fund and started its work in 1871, was the most comprehensive work done, rivaled only by La Description d’ Egypte produced by Napoleon savants.

In the colonial age, the map was used as a statement of ownership and domination. It was the birth certificate of a land to be dominated, claimed or colonized.

The survey work of Palestine Exploration Fund helped ultimately in the delineation by colonial powers of Palestine borders with Egypt in 1906, Syria and Lebanon in 1923, the first ever borders dividing Arab countries. These artificial divisions by colonial powers separated villages from their fields and their water resources, and separated families and villages from each other. In no case were the inhabitants were consulted. When they agitated, strict border control was relaxed for a while. Today the borders are more brutal and divisive than Berlin Wall.

But such land domination was never more disruptive and devastating to life and people in Palestine than that which followed the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. Balfour, who did not own the land, gave a false promissory note to Zionist Europeans who had no title to it, while the owners of the land did not know and did not consent of course. Thus started a 90-year war, and still counting, against the people of Palestine.

Haim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Commission understood Balfour’s letter to be a British undertaking to hand over Palestine to Jews to build a state, not merely to provide a home for Jews in Palestine. Weizmann worked accordingly. While WWI was still being fought in Palestine, he demanded a land survey of Palestine to undertake “legal examination of the validity of all land title deeds in Palestine”, in Weizmann words.

He appointed a special advisory committee headed by a young civil servant with Zionist sympathies, by the name of Herbert Samuel, who would be, two years later, the trusted British High Commissioner for Palestine. Samuel’s task was to make sure that the “Sacred Trust of Civilization” as decreed by the League of Nations is bestowed upon Palestine, and the Palestinians will have freedom and democracy in their country.

Slide 01
As Prof Roger Owen remarked this morning, the historians are debating narratives, ideologies and myths. Let them do that. I propose to show you in the following maps what the Palestinians actually experienced and suffered. No ideology or myth fabrication can dispute that. This is the Palestine that Samuel found. (Slide 1)

During his tenure (1920-1925) Samuel promulgated several laws modifying the 1858 Ottoman Land Code for the purpose of facilitating “close settlement of Jews on the land” (Article 6 of the Mandate). Since the land was held for centuries under Islamic law and ownership was recognized by descriptive deeds or by custom law based on long possession, the new laws meant that the Mandate government effectively held all land in Palestine under its control and released only those lots for which the owner provided absolute proof of ownership.

Samuel oversaw the promulgation of some one hundred ordinances which paved the way for the establishment of the basic infrastructure of a Jewish state. This included land transfer and usage, immigration, separate Jewish education, banking and labour institutions, Hebrew as an official language, paramilitary units which later developed into Haganah, all directed by a quasi-government: the Jewish Agency.

The legal foundation of these ordinances is doubtful since neither the Mandate nor Samuel in 4 out of 5 years of his tenure has the authority to do so before Turkey signed the peace agreement in August 1924.

Be that it may, the first few years of the Mandate laid the foundation of Israel on the ruins of Palestine.

In spite of 28 years of Zionist’s influence on the Mandate and London, Zionists did not succeed in acquiring more than 5-6% of Palestine.

It is the immigration which tipped the balance against the Palestinians. During the Mandate, immigrant Jews grew from 9% of the population to 30%, many were of military age and veterans of WWII. They settled in cities and in scattered colonies which acted as garrisons.

They had well trained soldiers, amounting to 20% of the immigrant population. (The armed forces in any country including the big powers is 1-2%)

Slide 02
By the end of the Mandate Britain dumped Palestine at the UN doorstep. The UN recommended by a thin majority of colonial powers the ill-fated Partition Plan of 1947. (Slide 2)

Although it was only a recommendation, which can only be legal if the Palestinians agreed to it, it came as a shock to the Palestinians. The Partition Plan and the unceremonious departure of the British Mandate triggered the largest, longest and continuous planned ethnic cleansing in modern history.

Why? Because under the Partition Plan, 457 Palestinian towns and villages suddenly found themselves under the sovereignty of Jewish immigrants, many of whom were recent arrivals. Because the Jewish immigrants would have sovereignty over 55% of Palestine or 10 times their holdings under the Mandate. Most importantly, half of the citizens of this would be Jewish state were Palestinians.

Slide 03
Ben Gurion would have none of them as citizens. They had to be cleared out. This animation of al Nakba (catastrophe) will show the progress of ethnic cleansing in two-week intervals in 1948/49. (Slide 3)

They have taken over the assets of Palestine Government – buildings, camps, airports, stores and documents. They had an instant state.
Blue: Jewish holding under the Mandate
Red: Occupied Palestinian land
Flashing yellow: Massacres.
Columns below show: number of depopulated villages, number of refugees, area of land occupied. It should be noted that half the refugees were expelled by the Israelis while they were supposedly under the protection of the British Mandate and before the state of Israel was declared. The Israeli claim of self defense in expelling these refugees is obviously a myth. Thus 78% of Palestine was lost and on its land, Israel was established.

(Slide 4) Before and at al Nakba


Slide 04-A

Slide 04-B

(Slide 5) Exile locations
(Slide 6)The aftermath


Slide 05

Slide 06

What to do with this vast conquered land and tens of thousands of empty houses? Ben Gurion moved fast to solve this problem.

First, Mossad agents persuaded Arab Jews, especially in Iraq and Morocco, by a mixture of promise and threats to immigrate to Israel and fill the vacuum.

Second, the UN mediator, count Folke Bernadotte, appalled at the misery of the expelled refugees, presented his report on 17 September 1948, calling for the immediate return of the refugees. On the second day, Jewish terrorists assassinated him in Jerusalem. His legacy remained and was adopted by the UN, affirmed 130 times since then, in the famous UN resolution 194 calling for the return of the refugees to their homes.

Anticipating international pressure to force the return of the refugees, Ben Gurion arranged a fictitious sale of 2,380,142 donums (about 600,000 acres) of very rich and strategically located refugee land to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to keep it at a safe distance from the enforcement of international law. (Slide 7) shows, probably for the first time, the refugees’ land which was effectively confiscated by JNF. The confiscated land is the property of 372 depopulated villages whose inhabitants comprise 55% of registered refugees.

JNF is a multi national corporation registered as a charity in about 50 countries. In 1948, it has participated in ethnic cleansing, plunder of property and other war crimes. Today its status as tax- exempt charity is challenged. Its policies of discrimination against Palestinians have been condemned by Treaty-based UN human rights committees.

Today Israel practices al Nakba on its own citizens, particularly in Beer Sheba. It confiscates this land as “mawat”, hence a state land. Nothing is further from truth.

(Slide 8) British recognition of ownership in Beer Sheba.   (Slide 9) Cultivated land.


Slide 08-A

Slide 08-B

Slide 09

Slide 10
There is no more tragic case for the refugees than in Gaza strip.

Who are they? They are the inhabitants of 247 villages, depopulated totally by Israeli forces in 1948 and found refuge in Gaza Strip.

(Slide 10) Today 1.5 million people are crowded in 1% of Palestine, in the biggest concentration camp in the world today, with little food, water, medicine and fuel, subject to constant bombardment by land, air, sea.

Slide 11
What is the summary of all this? 90 years after Balfour, 60 years after al Nakba, 40 years after occupation of the rest of Palestine in 1967, we have this situation. (Slide 11)
Slide 12


Can this longest running tragedy come to a happy end? Yes it can. By enforcing international law and principles of justice. By restoring people to their homes and land.

    Do we know their land?
    Yes we do. (Slide 12).

                              Do we know the owners of this land?
Slide 13
   Yes we do.
We have digitized records of all refugees by name, where they come from and where they are now in exile.

They are not very far. (Slide 13).

Is there room for them? This is not the right question. They have an inalienable right to return, whether the present occupants filled their land or not. Happily, they did not fill the place. 80% of Israeli Jews live in 15% of Israel. 80% of village sites are still vacant.

Let us take 2 examples.

       The Northern District (Slide 14)            The Southern District (Slide 15)


Slide 14

Slide 15

It is about time that this 90-year war against a people comes to an end. That can only be by uniting the dispossessed and their homes once again. For there is no more basic or natural human right than to return and live in your home in peace and freedom.



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