Salman Abu Sitta was only 10 years old when the Nakba – the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 – happened, forcing him from his home near Beersheba. Like many Palestinians of his generation, his traumatic loss and enduring desire to return would be the defining features of his life from that moment on.
Al Jazeera speaks to Abu Sitta about the long and winding journey that has taken him through many of the seismic events of the era.
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From a child of Nakba, at the age of 10, distinguished Palestinian intellectual, Salman Abu Sitta, 77, grew into the Keeper of the Keys of Return for seven million Palestinian refugees. While the common words of political jargon describing Nakba are many, to him it is very simple: “They took my home by brute force and made me a refugee and I want my home back, and I want to live in it in freedom and dignity,” Abu Sitta told Al Jazeera.
The return to Palestine, he says, has nothing to do with politics, sovereignty, occupation or even apartheid. “Palestinians lived in their homes under Memlukes, Ottomans, the British and some under Israelis,” he says.
“You see Palestinians do not have ‘aims’; they have rights. Because these rights are Inalienable, they represent the bottom red line beyond which no concession is possible. Because doing so will destroy their life. That they will not permit.”
The 750,000 villagers, like little Salman and his family, who survived the massacres, were forcibly torn from their ancestral roots that were bountifully nourished over centuries by a symbiotic partnership of sweat, toil, earth and sun belying the inane Zionist fiction that the belligerent Jewish colonisers arrived in an empty land and made the desert bloom.
“No other settler movement has depended on a vast array of myths, lies and misinformation, fuelled regularly by willing media and paid politicians. Palestinians did not need such tactics. Zionism did. Its policy and practice flies in the face of every principle of international law and basic facts of history and geography.”
In his memoir, Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir, published last month, Abu Sitta chronicles the premeditated dispossession of the Palestinian homeland, engineered by both the British government and, later, the Jewish terrorists*, and strongly resisted by intrepid Palestinian villagers pitifully armed against the well-armed and trained Imperial forces and the Zionist armies.
I never could understand why Zionists destroyed my life and that of millions of other Palestinians or how this crime was portrayed as a victory of civilization and the fulfilment of Divine Will.
Abu Sitta’s family, hailing from ‘the largest, wealthiest, strongest tribe in southern Palestine’, has a long and proud reputation for defending their lands in Beersheba and for their role in the Palestinian national movement.
And, Abu Sitta’s refugee journey from his village, Ma’in, to Gaza, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Canada and the UK, has unfalteringly been guided by the 1948 UN Resolution 194 calling for the return of the Palestinian refugees.
An engineer by profession, Abu Sitta is best known for his cartographic work on Palestine and his work on the Palestinian Right of Return. He is the author of six books and more than 300 articles and papers on Palestine, including the Atlas of Palestine, 1917–1966 (2010). He was a member of the Palestine National Council for 20 years. He is the general coordinator of the Right of Return Congress and, notably, he is the Founder and President of the Palestine Land Society.
The Palestine Land Society (Plands) and his Atlas of Palestine are the culmination of Abu Sitta’s quest of discovery to know who expelled him from his home. “In all the research I made, I did not find a moral, legal, demographic, historical or geographical reason why I should be and remain a refugee.”
“Nakba is an aberration of history and I have no doubt that its many murderous consequences will not last. It will remain, however, an indelible black mark in the history of Zionist Jews and those who support them for centuries to come.”
“The reverse of the coin is the resilience and steadfastness of Palestinians, which will remain a shining light for those who seek freedom and dignity.”
Every tenacious step, every document, every page turned, every image, word, story and his every breath pieced together the shattered fragments of Nakba to rebuild the map of historic Palestine in an immense body of indisputable evidence and facts.
It is his Summa Justica. It is a supreme act of resistance backed by international law. It is a supreme expression of Palestinian sumoud – the resilient steadfastness to Palestinian rights and homeland.
In the early years, certain that their exile was temporary, the expelled Palestinians referred to themselves as “returnees” and this singleminded certainty is the impelling vigour of Abu Sitta’s life and work.
He proves that the integrity of historic Palestine cannot be compromised whether by imperial machinations such as the Balfour Declaration, the United Nations’ partition ploy, the perfidy of international support for the Zionist occupation and definitely not by a facetious argument of divine right in which God is mobilised as “the prime coloniser”.
“Nakba to me is an earthquake, not by the forces of nature, but by the powers of evil. It is not instantaneous but lasting for decades. I never could understand why Zionists destroyed my life and that of millions of other Palestinians or how this crime was portrayed as a victory of civilization and the fulfilment of divine will.”
While Israel deconstructed Palestine and compromised the Right of Return with international immunity, Abu Sitta, an exemplar of principled Palestinian leadership, diligently reconstructed and mapped the future for all Palestinians laying the groundwork for their homecoming.
“Our plan is to reconstruct the destroyed Palestinian villages. The plans are derived from a massive database. We are creating a file for every village, its house plans before 1948, its features and characteristics, its economies and its status of education …Young architects are now working on the reconstruction of these destroyed villages to be built in the same locations with the same beautiful old features, but with modern amenities.”
Nakba has continued around the earth 68 times and in its bloody orbit the slaughtered souls of Palestine’s innocents: Infants, children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, continue to demand justice, and the grievers, the maimed, the traumatised, the incarcerated, the homeless, the jobless, the dispossessed, continue to throw stones, refuse food and refuse injustice.
Abu Sitta has ensured that the keys to the Palestinians’ stolen homes will inevitably reopen the never forgotten doors.
*The Stern Gang was classified by the British mandate and the United Nations as terrorists.
Dr Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters and editor of a volume of Palestinian poetry, I Remember My Name.