“The right to return is sacred to us”

About the historic Nakba and October 7th. A conversation with Salman Abu Sitta
By Jamal Iqrith
First contact on the Israeli-Lebanese border after Israel's withdrawal from the south of the Cedar State: Five-year-old Saleh Darwish shakes his aunt's hand through barbed wire (May 31, 2000)


Salman Abu Sitta is a Palestinian geographer and historian and one of the leading experts on the Nakba. He has also drawn up a detailed plan on how the “right of return” could be implemented in practice.

The Palestine Congress in Berlin from April 12th to 14th was supposed to denounce “German complicity in the genocide of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” During your speech, which was broadcast via video, the police stormed the stage and then banned the entire event. The reason given was that you are subject to a “ban on political activity” in Germany. Were you aware of this?


No, I didn't know that. I have not received any notification from any official German body. I don't know the definition of "political activity" in Germany. And I also have no intention of getting elected to the German parliament! In over 50 years of academic work, I have lectured at many universities around the world. My electricity was never turned off during my lectures, as it was in Berlin. This is a novelty that should not be forgotten.

What is this ban based on?

I have no idea. As you know, the congress was organized by German activists, including German Jews, who advocate for justice and freedom for Palestinians. The invited speakers were well-known personalities from all over the world. Undoubtedly they had and still have enough open forums in which they can speak. Your views are probably known to many people in the world. This leaves the German public as the only blind community that ignores the truth.

Ironically, the approach to the issue in Germany is rejected by 120 US universities and many institutions in Europe. They have not only held conferences on Palestine, but also set up camps to protest against the genocide in the Gaza Strip, call for a ceasefire and demand a stop to arms sales to Israel. This makes Germany an abettor of Israel's genocide in Gaza, as alleged in the pending Nicaragua case before the International Court of Justice, ICJ. Germany is seen in the world as Israel's "European representative."

For months, the German authorities have been trying - sometimes violently - to suppress demonstrations and events against the war in the Gaza Strip. Basic rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are suspended. Why is Germany's actions against the Palestinian movement so repressive?

The Federal Republic has long been known for aiding and abetting Israeli war crimes. According to Article 25 of the Rome Statute, the legal basis of the International Criminal Court, ICC, this is punishable. On April 8, I followed the German defense in Nicaragua's lawsuit before the ICJ. In The Hague, Germany's argument became a confirmation of the accusations. As a layman, I found the arguments put forward to be poor.

German politicians emphasize that it is about “reparations” for the genocide of European Jews under Nazi fascism.

Let me go back in history a little. In the 1950s, Germany paid millions of marks in compensation to the emerging state of Israel - not to the German Jews - but to settle new Jewish immigrants in place of the Palestinians and thus support Israel in carrying out the Palestinian catastrophe, the "Nakba". . After the Zionists invaded Palestine and depopulated 530 Palestinian towns and villages, the land was empty. Many European Jews preferred to go to the USA instead of Palestine. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, turned to Arab Jews, whom he despised, to "fill the gap." But they were reluctant to immigrate.

Then Zionists planted bombs in Jewish communities in Iraq and Morocco, prompting many Jews to emigrate to Israel. The young state was bankrupt and could not afford to accommodate the new immigrants. German subsidies helped. Israel blocked the return of Palestinians expelled in 1948 and replaced them with Arab Jews.

Berlin also paid millions of euros to Israel as part of an association agreement between the EU and Israel in 2000. The agreement originally stipulated that the cooperation would exclude any violation of human rights - no weapons of war or weapons of mass destruction should have been produced for Israel. The Federal Republic was the only country to vote to drop this clause. This made it possible for Israel to commit genocide with weapons manufactured in Germany or subsidized by Germany. German subsidization completed the Nakba.

Protest against the Israeli war is also being suppressed in other countries in the global north. For what interest?

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No, they are not oppressed in the Global North, or at least that doesn't fully work. According to current information, there are protests at 120 universities in the USA. The movement is larger than during the Vietnam War. Conversely, in the case of Vietnam, there was no organization as powerful as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC (largest pro-Israel lobby in the USA, jW ).

The protesting students in the USA are demanding a ceasefire, divestment and a boycott of Israeli companies and institutions. They demand a free Palestine from the river to the sea. This is a qualitative change in discourse brought about by the moral strength of young people. This change was paid for with the blood of over 100,000 Palestinians killed and injured.

The young people at universities have exposed the lies, the slander, the genocide, the occupation, the apartheid and a long series of war crimes that have been committed in Palestine for 76 years and have been hushed up by the Western media. These people have two characteristics that distinguish them from US politicians and most other politicians who side with Israel: first, they have a conscience and a free spirit, and second, they cannot be bribed.

You are accused of having written in an article that if you had been there as a young man on October 7th, you would have also broken through the border fortifications around the Gaza Strip. For some it was an “armed uprising,” for others it was “anti-Semitic terror.” How do you classify the events?

This accusation is a sign of stupidity, racism and defamation. Those who criticize this have not read my article in the American Jewish publication Mondoweiss . There is not a single fact in it that can be disputed.

The whole thing is racist because the apologists of Zionism support settlers from Romania, Ukraine and Poland who once came to our shores on a smuggling ship to kill us and steal our land. We Palestinians have no right to our own land. The settlers in Nirim, Nir Os, Ein Hashlosha and Magen (Israeli kibbutzim attacked on October 7, jW ) have settled on my family's land, the village of Al Ma'in Abu Sitta. In fact, I was born on my father's land, where Kibbutz Nirim was later built. So I have the absolute right to return home. The war criminal who sits on my land with a weapon and German support is the one who does not have this right. The racists also missed another fact: the land on which these four kibbutzim are built should have been part of the Gaza Strip under the armistice agreement of February 24, 1949. A year later, Israel separated 200 square kilometers of the Gaza Strip as a "temporary measure." And it stayed that way.

The accusation is also defamatory because the criminals are portrayed as righteous and the victims as guilty. Palestinian resistance is legitimate under international law, for example Article 51 of the UN Charter. And it has many names: Fedayeen, PLO, Fatah, PFLP, Hamas, Jihad. Undoubtedly there will be many more names in the future. The resistance cannot be stopped.

The Hamas leadership must have been aware that Israel would punish the attacks severely. Hasn't this set the Palestinians far back in their fight for self-determination?

I do not know whether that was the case or not. But I know from my own experience that the Zionist invasion of Palestine and the Israeli attacks have continued for more than 27,000 days since 1948 and have not stopped for a single day. The Zionist forces of the Haganah invaded Palestine in April 1948 with an army of 120,000 European soldiers with nine brigades, carried out 38 military operations and committed 350 war crimes. All of them are described in detail in the Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966. Even before the declaration of the State of Israel, 220 Arab towns and villages were depopulated. By the end of 1948, the total was 530. This was the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Even after 1948, Israel continued its attacks on refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, as well as in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Israel continues to kill refugees today, regardless of where they are. The Gaza Strip has been the subject of intense attacks by land, air and sea. The area has been under a blockade since 2005, allowing only limited food and medicine. Destruction like the one that occurred after October 7th is not new, it has just increased in intensity. Ethnic cleansing became genocide.

The Israeli state ideology is based on deterrence, according to the motto "If you kill one of us, we will kill a hundred of you." When dozens of fighters from refugee camps broke through the heavily fortified fences surrounding the Gaza Strip on October 7, that ideology collapsed. The Israeli response to this cannot prevent a new wave of resistance to the liberation of Palestine.

When Israel was founded 76 years ago, you were ten years old. What did you experience back then?

On May 14, 1948, 24 armored vehicles of the Zionist forces attacked my village of Al Ma'in. We had 15 rifles to defend ourselves. They blew up the school my father had built in 1920, the well and the flour mill. They burned our houses and killed everyone in sight. As they did so, Ben-Gurion addressed the settlers' council and announced the founding of the state. That day I became a refugee.

I had never seen a Jew before. As a child, I wondered who these people were, why they attacked us and destroyed our lives. It became my life's mission to learn everything about the people who rule the land and the people of Palestine. As an engineer, I worked on a plan to return the displaced people.

A central demand of the Palestinians is the “right of return” of those displaced in 1948 and their descendants – around nine million people – to Palestine, which you mentioned. To what extent do you think this is feasible?

This right is sacred to all Palestinians. It is anchored in all international conventions and has been reaffirmed 130 times in UN Resolution 194. International law is clearly on the side of the returnees. The Western countries that founded Israel are blocking the return, but this will not last. You will have to bow to global pressure.

And where should the millions of people go?

We have determined through extensive geographical and demographic studies that return is practical. Around 80 percent of Israeli Jews live in twelve percent of the country, namely the three districts: Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem and Haifa. The kibbutzim (home to two percent of the Jewish Israeli population) and the Israeli army control the remaining 88 percent. Around 500 depopulated villages are hardly or not at all inhabited by settlers. The refugees and their descendants could return to the peacefully minded parts of the Jewish-Israeli population without much displacement. Of course, this requires the abolition of racism, apartheid, occupation and war crimes. In other words: Zionism must end.

In the past you have said that what is currently happening in Gaza is "unique." Can you explain that?

The Gaza Strip is the only place in Palestine where our flag has flown. The flag has disappeared in Israel and the West Bank, which was formerly annexed by Jordan. The Gaza Strip has always been the center of Palestinian resistance: in 1950 the Fedayin fighters, in 1958 Fatah. Gaza is also politically central: I just name the formation of the all-Palestinian government in October 1948, the Executive Committee for the Refugee Conference, the first elected Palestinian Legislative Council in 1962, the first Palestinian delegation to the UN. Representatives from Gaza were also instrumental in the founding of the PLO in 1964. The genocide in 2023/2024 has made Gaza a global symbol of the struggle for freedom.

They call the Gaza Strip a “concentration camp.” This is causing outrage in Germany. Why do you think this term is appropriate?

The Gaza Strip is the largest and longest-running such camp in the world. The ancestors of today's population, now over two million people, were driven out of 247 towns and villages in massacres in 1948. Their homeland was the “Southern District,” which covers 12,500 square kilometers. Today these people live crammed into the Gaza Strip, which, at 365 square kilometers, makes up only 1.3 percent of Palestine's area. The population density is 8,000 inhabitants per square kilometer. The 150,000 Israeli settlers from Europe are currently living on the stolen land. The population density there is seven people per square kilometer.