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At the age of 10, Salman Abu Sitta and his family were forced out of their ancestral home in Bi'r as-Saba' at the start of the Nakba in 1948. That year was the culmination of a Zionist colonial ethnic cleansing project that began decades prior with the support of imperial states. From Gaza, where most of his family remained, Abu Sitta journeyed to Cairo where he studied at the prestigious al-Saidiya secondary school.  

At 22, while in London to pursue his graduate studies in civil engineering, a scientific training he would later mobilize in the service of imaging Palestine, he began his life’s work of collecting a growing archive of maps, aerial and ground photographs, records, and memos from Palestine before, during and after 1948. 

He then began his work with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to gather and analyze the data he had been collecting, collating images, and creating cartographies of Palestine reaching back to the 1870s, prior to the first Zionist settlements in Palestine at the turn of the century, and even further back in history.

Today, at 84, Dr. Abu Sitta is recognized as a preeminent knowledge producer on the ethnic cleansing of 1948, not only for having mapped out a socio-geographical history of Palestine, but also for developing a practical plan for implementing the right of return toward a one-state solution.

He authored over four hundred studies on the right of return, published four essential atlases on Palestine, and founded the Palestine Land Society (PLS) in London to research Palestine, its land, and its people. Professor of Architecture and Urban Design Howayda al-Harithy recently founded The Palestine Land Studies Center (PLSC) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as a permanent home for the archives of Abu Sitta and the PLS, inviting interdisciplinary research and public engagement with these documents.

While the Zionist state was continuing the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Gaza, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, and across Palestine, killing, wounding, and displacing over 70,000 people, The Public Source spoke to Abu Sitta. We talked about the Nakba, ongoing for 73 years, Palestinian resistance against settler-colonialism, and the practicality of a free Palestine — from the river to the sea.    

The following interview was conducted over the phone on May 28, 2021. It was edited and condensed for clarity.

As one of the most prominent scholars, and a survivor, of the Nakba, how do you contextualize the recent war on Gaza, the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Jerusalem, and the acts of resistance carried out throughout historic Palestine?

Salman Abu Sitta: The clear answer is the Nakba goes on. You don’t need to be a historian, or to be as old as I am to say, “I witnessed the Nakba.” Ask the surviving child of Abu Al-Ouf family or Abu Hatab, the single survivors of whole extended families. The Nakba goes on.

So when we say 73 years since the Nakba, we don’t mean it was an event that happened 73 years ago; what we mean is that this Nakba has been ongoing for 73 years. This leads to two conclusions. The first is that the settler-colonial project hasn’t yet settled; it hasn’t yet enjoyed the fruits of this aggression and is still fighting to establish itself. The second is that the people of Palestine have been fighting for 73 years to overcome this colonial project that alienates them from their country and eliminates their country from the records. Theirs is a record of perseverance. What we see now and will see in the future is an affirmation of that record. It behooves everyone  not only Palestinians, Arabs, and those who support Palestine  to really stand by Palestine in no uncertain terms so that this long Nakba ends.

Is the right of return viable, practical, and realistic?

SAS: As you can see from our website Palestine Land Society, we published many articles, research papers, atlases, books, lectures, and so on, describing that the right of return has three elements which are constant, correct, and enduring. First, the right of return is sacred to all Palestinians. It is in their psyche, from the old man to a young child, and they will never give it up.

[T]he right of return is sacred to all Palestinians. It is in their psyche, from the old man to a young child, and they will never give it up.
Second, the right of return is legal. It is enshrined in every article of UN resolutions and absolutely affirmed by every article of international law. The fact that it has not been implemented is a sign of the crimes committed by the people who created Israel in 1948, and the same crime is still committed, for instance, by vetoing UN resolutions that call for its implementation. Third, the right of return is practical. Some European friends say, “yes, you’re right, you have the right to return home, but if you do, you will cause a Jewish Nakba.” I think this reply is racist and immoral. Why? Because it is as if a criminal is committing a crime every day, and then they think, “this man is committing a crime every day so it’s a normal thing.” We say, “no, this is not normal. There is no statute of limitations about crimes.” And if they say, “the place is full of settlers from Poland or Russia.” We say, “it is not. Our studies have shown that 87 percent of the Jewish Israelis live on only 12 percent of the land they made into Israel."

There will be no mass displacement of the settlers provided that they do not take over any property that doesn’t belong to them, and more importantly, provided that they don’t adhere to any principles of apartheid, discrimination, or war crimes. This simply means Zionism must be abolished for any future peace in the area.

In commemoration of 60 years in exile, Abu Sitta mapped the dispossession of Palestinians and the depopulation of their villages during the ethnic cleansing of 1948. The map was produced in 1998. (Salman Abu Sitta/Palestine Land Society).

In commemoration of 60 years in exile, Abu Sitta mapped the dispossession of Palestinians and the depopulation of their villages during the ethnic cleansing of 1948. The map was produced in 1998. (Salman Abu Sitta/Palestine Land Society).

Usually in the context of Lebanon, one often hears that granting political, economic, or even citizenship rights to Palestinian refugees will take away their right of return. Is this true based on your research?

SAS: It is not true, neither on the basis of my research, nor on the basis of actual fact or legal formulations. If you live in any country, you have a contract with this country, which says that you have to obey the laws of the country, provided that the country protects you and gives you all the services due to a citizen. It has nothing do with your claims; it has nothing to do with whether you are a Palestinian living in London; and it has nothing to do with your rights in Palestine, the recovery of your rights in Palestine, and your return to Palestine. There are no restrictions on that.

The idea that a citizenship right deprives them of engaging their right of return is a ludicrous error of judgment.
Let me give a simple example. Edward Said was an American citizen. There was nothing preventing him from affirming and implementing his right of return. Citizenship rights are based on a contract between the country in which one lives and the person who accepts these obligations and these rights; they belong to his life in that country and they don’t belong to his rights anywhere else. They belong to his rights in domicile, in work, in health care, and so on. These are rights based on his presence in that country. Let me remind you of another example. There are many Palestinians, especially from Lebanon and Syria, now living in Germany and Denmark. There is no law, nor even the delusion, about depriving them of their right of return to Palestine, and there are measures in these countries that ensure their human rights. The idea that a citizenship right deprives them of engaging their right of return is a ludicrous error of judgment. 

I know that in the 1965 Arab Summit in Casablanca, Arab countries stated that they wouldn't give Palestinians citizenship; this was at a time when there were fears that citizenship would prevent their desire to return home. But any student of history will tell you this is rubbish. It was after 1965, in 1969, when a Palestinian revolution started in different countries, in Jordan and Lebanon, etc., and of Palestinian-organized attacks on the enemy that took our country Palestine. Even today, Palestinians in Gaza have shown that they are still fighting for their right of return. Therefore, this original idea was misguided or, at least, it belongs to a time that is over. Now we know that young Palestinians in the United States, 18 to 25 years old, are the ones carrying the banner for the right of return. So, this argument should be laid to rest.

You’ve spent over six decades archiving and collecting maps, records, and documents on Palestine. What drove you to devote your entire life to this kind of struggle?

SAS:  When we  and I am one of them  were expelled from our homes in Palestine in 1948, what did we have? We probably had the clothes we were wearing. Some of us probably had a few papers, but not many did, and we had our memory which could never be obliterated. But memories in your head are not the title deeds of your country, and the Israeli Zionist scheme not only took the land, but also took everything on the land. They took the private and public records on health, education, banking, ports, railways, and agriculture, etc. So when we were expelled from our home, we only had our memory and our belief in our history and geography. This does not satisfy people who do not know that; they need documentation. It’s a pity that in the age of computers and TV, we still have to prove that there is a Palestine. It really pains me to see some Palestinians showing a picture of their grandfathers or fathers and saying, “this is him in Palestine;” or showing an old stamp showing Palestine, or one of the thousands, one of hundreds of thousands of documents during the British mandate that state “Government of Palestine.” We have been deliberately voided by the Zionist propaganda.

Since I began my studies in London in the 1960s, I decided to collect everything I could about Palestine. I collected in England which, at the time, had left Palestine in a hasty and cowardly escape a decade prior. I collected these documents. I collected documents in Germany, in Paris, in New York at the United Nations, and Washington in the National Congress, and many, many places. When we collected these documents, we also had to put them in scientific form. Through GIS, we collated the data and created a record of 55,000 names in Palestine. We produced several atlases, including the Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966, in English and Arabic, and the Atlas of Palestine 1871-1877 that we produced last August and shows Arab Palestine before Zionist colonization. Out of the 13,000 place names, there is not a single Jewish settlement name. Not one. It was purely Arab Palestine. We also produced an Atlas called “Return Journey” in which we show Palestine destroyed by the Zionists and present maps of Israel so that people know where to locate their villages and cities and find the remains left behind. We also produced poster maps, which are very popular, representing these villages. We produced around three million copies of these posters and are still printing them, especially this month, because of great interest. 

A rare map created from the Ottoman Tax Register of 1596 showing Palestine Localities in that year (Salman Abu Sitta/Palestine Land Society).

A rare map created from the Ottoman Tax Register of 1596 showing Palestine Localities in that year (Salman Abu Sitta/Palestine Land Society).

Based on everything you’ve seen and experienced over time, do you think Palestine will be free?

SAS: Let me ask you a question: The pyramids in Egypt have lasted now for around four, five, six thousand years. How come they were able to do that? Engineering-wise, the pyramid has a base and an apex, with the base at the bottom and the apex at the top. This is a natural condition to stay stable. When they tried to create Israel, they tried to create a pyramid with its apex on the ground and its horizontal base on top. This can’t be; so it must be held with strong hands from both sides, and these strong hands have to remain strong. One day these hands will be weak and tired. All the efforts of the Israelis, Zionists of all kinds and shapes, and those who supported them  giving them F-16s, $730 million [a reference to the recent arms sale to Israel by the Biden administration], and unlimited support in the UN by vetoing all resolutions  what does that tell you? They are holding an upside-down pyramid and there is no way that could last. History tells us that this is an unnatural situation, and unnatural situations cannot oppose gravity. 

They are holding an upside-down pyramid and there is no way that could last. History tells us that this is an unnatural situation, and unnatural situations cannot oppose gravity.
Gravity must always apply. They will realize there is no point in keeping us bound in this way, so they will release their grip and this upside-down pyramid will fall over. This is justice. Justice is the only way for stability. I believe very strongly that the will and determination of the Palestinians, together with more and more people in the world, as we’ve seen recently, supporting Palestine, all these efforts will return the pyramid to its base, and that means justice. Therefore, I have no doubt that Palestine will be free. The point is never give up. Never give up.