Source: Chapter in the book "Being Palestinian", ed. Yasir Suleiman, Edinburgh University Press, 2016
I discovered I am ‘Palestinian’ the first time I stepped out of Palestine. Not because I lacked identity but because I did not need to prove that to my family, neighbours or countrymen.
My biggest shock came when I was studying for my Ph.D at University College London. One day I went to renew my Aliens Card in the early 1960s at the Home Office in London. I looked at the renewed card and saw next to my nationality: ‘uncertain’. I looked at the clerk in disbelief, ‘but I am Palestinian, my father is Palestinian, so is my grandfather. You British should know that.’
‘It is only a formality’, he said gently.
This challenge to my identity, indeed to my being, was devastating.
During and after our Nakba, we went through a traumatic experience of a different kind. I experienced being a refugee from the age of ten. In 1948 and 1949, I saw the mass of humanity driven from their homes in 250 villages in southern Palestine to take shelter under trees, in schools, in mosques and with relatives or friends. They were huddled in the 1% of Palestine that was left unoccupied in the south, in what is famously known now as Gaza Strip.
We were all engulfed in the whirlwind of al Nakba which befell us. The villages, places and lands we came from were crystal clear in our minds. We knew every feature of them. In earnest hope of swift return, people sold their field crops, and mortgaged or exchanged plots of land with each other in territory now occupied by the enemy.
We knew the enemy in name only, as ‘the vagabonds of the world’. Although the enemy spoke a babel of languages and wore a wild variety of semi-uniforms, it had a secret tongue, known as Hebrew, which nobody knew. We knew nothing about the invaders’ structure, strength or their plans other than they attack, conquer, kill and expel people from their homes. Some of us, with knowledge of history, recalled Hulagu the leader of the Mongols, or the princes and kings of the Franks, aka the Crusaders. Some, with a religious inclination, professed that this plague was visited upon us because we did not obey God’s word.
In all this, we never felt that our ‘Palestinian-ness’ was challenged in any way. We spoke of ‘al watan’, ‘the land you tread on’ in our colloquial language, or the homeland. Nobody doubted who a Palestinian was or what his country was.
Young men returned to attack the occupiers. They scored great successes as the enemy could not at first control the vast land it had conquered. Later these young men formed ‘fedayeen’ groups and their leaders became members of the PLO.
The traumatic experience in London of having the word ‘Palestine’ erased, and its people forgotten, was aggravated by the great celebration in Britain, and the West generally, of our demise. The Israeli conquest was seen as a victory for civilization and the fulfilment of divine will.
While doing part-time essays for BBC Arabic, I had to enter into desperate arguments with supposedly well-informed BBC reporters to say we exist, that there is Palestine. I saw with great sadness prestigious institutions, such as the British Library and the Royal Geographical Society, cross out the word ‘Palestine’ in their directories and replace it with the word ‘Israel’.
So am I not Palestinian after all? I went to libraries, exhibitions and searched the archives of institutions in London to copy and acquire any documents I might find, first about my family, birthplace, then Gaza and Beer Sheba and, later, all of Palestine.
The findings were impressive, which was not surprising: it was the colonial West, the source of the original sin, which had been mapping and researching Palestine since the 19th century.
The journey into the depositories of information on Palestine extended to other sources in the UK, then to Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, New York and Washington. This journey took 40 years but finally gave birth to the Atlas of Palestine, which documents every kilometre of Palestine.
While looking at tens of thousands of place names I marvelled at how Palestinians carved their history in these names. They recorded it in their happy and sad days. Place names such as ‘the Wedding of the Beauty’, ‘the White Spring’, ‘Haj Ali Gardens’ or ‘the Death of the Hero’ compose the alphabet of Palestinian history.
This history is more ancient than many believe. Most of the village names date back at least two thousand years. I say ‘at least’ because we have a record of these villages from the Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, in the year 313 AD. They are older than London, Paris and probably Rome. The oral history of al Nakba collected sparingly from the survivors is another record of the destroyed landscape, confirming what Eusebius saw 17 centuries ago.
The huge amount of data I collected and analysed on every spot in our Palestine was compared with the situation today after Israel’s occupation in 1948. With available technology it was possible to monitor changes in our homes and landscape, and see what the Israelis did with them, which Jewish immigrants lived there, where they came from, what they built on it and what they destroyed. It was therefore possible to chart a realistic scenario of how our return could be implemented.
This led to a surprising result which has been concealed for decades by Zionist misinformation. I found our dispossessed land is largely empty. The Jews still live in the coastal region and western Jerusalem as they did during the British Mandate, admittedly with the necessary expansion that comes with an eight-fold increase in the population. I found that 90% of the village sites are still vacant. The vast, confiscated land of the refugees has been allotted to Kibbutz, who constitute only 2% of Israelis, and to the Israeli army.
It was therefore possible to devise a Return Plan for the refugees outlining the demography and geography of the landscape, and the applicable law of return. Another atlas was published, The Return Journey, showing the possible routes of return.
Talking about return has been deemed ‘impossible’ in western and Israeli eyes. Not anymore. At a dozen conferences in the last two years and with the rise of the BDS movement, this is being seriously discussed as the only way for permanent peace. Earlier this month (May 2014), a small Israeli NGO, Zochrot, released an Apple application called iNakba, which guides you from any point in Israel to the depopulated villages and gives information about them. This is a small step on the road to return.
For some Palestinians, to be Palestinian is to appreciate an olive tree, to enjoy a za’ter (Thyme) breakfast, to hang a map of your hometown in your house or to marry a girl who would have been your neighbour before exile. But that is just to keep the memory alive.
To be Palestinian is not to forget, or to surrender this great heritage, not to kneel and resign to the tragedy of al Nakba. To be Palestinian is to resist the ravages of evil deeds, to insist on the restoration of rights and to plan for their restoration. To be Palestinian is to be stubborn in adherence to the principles of justice which can only be achieved by return home.
To be Palestinian is to be a refugee in a camp with a street called Lydda Street and a grocery called Ramle store. To be Palestinian is to be a fourth generation Palestinian born in New York who refers to Bayt Daras as his or her hometown. To be Palestinian is to say to the Home Office clerk, or his successors: ‘no, I am not “uncertain”. I was Palestinian, I am Palestinian and I will forever be Palestinian’, in any language, in any city, in any year.
Salman Abu Sitta was born in Beer Sheba. He is an engineer by profession. He is the founder and president of Palestine Land Society and is the author of The Atlas of Palestine and The Return Journey. He is a frequent writer on Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return.