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.