Dr. Salman Abu Sitta was born in Palestine in 1937 when it was ruled by Britain under the British Mandate for Palestine. He is considered a world-leading expert on the Nakba, and was an eyewitness and survivor of that catastrophe for the Palestinian people. He dedicated his adult life to documenting and meticulously mapping the Palestinian villages and cities that were razed to the ground first by the Zionist militias and then, after 1948, by the State of Israel until the present day.
He is the author of several books and reports including as “Mapping my return: a Palestinian memory” (2016); “Al Nakba, 1948: Register of the evicted populations in Palestine” (1997); and perhaps his most comprehensive and internationally known work: “Atlas of Palestine 1948” (2004), together with its expanded version: “Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966” (2010).
In this interview, he describes Israel’s ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, his memories of the 1948 Nakba, and explains why the Right of Return is essential.
You made a detailed cartographic record of the advance of Israeli colonialism before 1948 (the founding of the State of Israel), during, and after, based on ethnic cleansing. The Palestinian refugee phenomenon had already begun before ‘48, but the Nakba gave rise to millions of displaced people, living in refugee camps in Palestine as well as in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. What was this process like?
The Zionist colonization project in Europe was based on the myth that “Palestine is a land without people” suitable for “a people without a land,” namely European Jews. The slogan hid the fact that Palestine was fully populated for centuries and Zionists’ real aim was to empty it through ethnic cleansing, which developed into Genocide. Under the auspices of the infamous Balfour Declaration (2 November 1917) and with the collusion of the British Mandate on Palestine (1920-1948), the Zionists formed a formidable army of European Jews. It consisted of 120,000 well-trained soldiers in nine brigades. In 1948, this army attacked and depopulated 560 Palestinian cities and villages in 31 military operations which carried out 90 massacres. The depopulated Palestinians became refugees, and have remained so ever since. Their number now stands at 9 million, representing two thirds of the Palestinian people. The Gaza Strip is a supreme example.
You were 10 years old during the first Nakba. How do you remember it, and what happened to your city?
The most striking memory for me was my surprise and wonder about who were those people who attacked us, and why they did (and still do) that. I had never seen a Jew in my life before. They attacked us on May 14, 1948 in 24 armored vehicles. They destroyed our buildings, including the school which my father built in 1920 and our well and flour mill, and burnt our houses and killed anyone whom they found.
This memory is seared in my mind and I wrote about it in my memoir, Mapping My Return. I spent the rest of my life researching who these people were, their names, their origins and motives. I then devoted my efforts to documenting my home and my country, Palestine, in research papers, books, atlases and many maps. Looking ahead, I developed a plan for how to implement the Right of Return according to international law and, above all, on the basis of our deep roots in our country.
The State of Israel is committing genocide against the 2.2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza strip, a territory that many had already described as the largest open-air prison in the world. Can you describe this demographic situation, and how it compares to the areas east of the Gaza Strip, a few kilometers away in Israel?
The Genocide Israel is committing today, under the glare of cameras and in stark violation of international law, has revealed the real nature of the country and its supporters. Israel has been exposed as the pariah of the world, the biggest violator of international law, and one of the only remaining colonial forces in the world — the force that invades lands, kills people and escapes punishment. Its supporters are the U.S. and most Western European countries, which have a sordid colonial history.
On the opposite side, there are 2.3 million Palestinians who now have the sympathy of the people of the world. Who are these Palestinians? They are the inhabitants of 247 villages which were attacked and depopulated by Israel in southern Palestine in 1948.
They are pushed into the tiny Gaza Strip (1.3% of Palestinian territory) at a density of 8000 persons per square kilometer. They have been attacked by Israel in their camps continuously for 75 years. The year 2023 is only the latest, but with the greatest savagery, butchering 20,000 people, mostly women and children, in 66 days (and still counting) in full view of the world with no cry of injustice except from ordinary people around the world. With their courage and fortitude, Gazan Palestinians pulled their children from the rubble and refused to leave the last tiny piece of Palestine left for them.
They have the Right to Return, according to hundreds of UN resolutions.
Who is occupying their land? European settlers with dual citizenship: European and Israeli. Yet their number is tiny, about 135,000, smaller than a single refugee camp in Gaza. They are spread over 212 colonies occupying 12,500 square kilometers of Palestine, or 35 times the area of Gaza Strip.
Approximately 1.8 million Palestinians have been displaced to the south of the Gaza Strip since the start of the bombardment and Israel’s ground invasion. Many are pointing to this as the new Nakba. What is your opinion?
This Israeli plan exposed clearly its intention, which is a gradual evacuation of the Gaza Strip and then emptying it. Instead of Palestinians exercising their natural right to return, Israel wants to get rid of them completely by removing them from Palestine altogether. If they do not leave, Israel will destroy them. Here is a clear case of ethnic cleansing turned into a complete Genocide.
The situation has not only become dire in the Gaza Strip, but since Netanyahu’s coalition government took power in December of 2022, attacks have been multiplying in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. This includes joint actions by settlers and soldiers, pogroms in Palestinian villages, and attacks on refugee camps like Jenin and Nablus. What can you tell us about this?
If Israel leans on the excuse that Hamas is armed resistance and that Israel has “evacuated” Gaza strip and replaced this with a blockade, then what is the excuse for Israeli actions in the West Bank? According to the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion in 2004, Israel is the occupying power of Palestine, including the West Bank, which includes Jerusalem. Israel therefore commits crimes not only by occupying Palestinian land but also by seizing land, destroying homes, killing people, imprisoning children, and all the other crimes. It is a lasting shame for all Western countries that support Israeli crimes. They, too, are liable to be brought to the International Criminal Court, besides Israel, for aiding and abetting Israeli crimes.
You have been insisting on the Right of Return as a central issue. What is the current situation of the refugees and the Palestinian diaspora, and why is the Right of Return a central to Palestinians’ struggle?
The Right of Return is sacred to all Palestinians, legal under UN resolution 194 and all conventions. It is also feasible. It is mandatory in all cases.
It is inconceivable that a foreign force would attack another country, kill and expel its people, take their land and prevent them from returning to it. This is happening not in a remote place but in the heart of the world, not in ancient times but today while we watch. Thus, it is not surprising that Resolution 194 calling for the return of the refugees has been affirmed by the UN 135 times so far and affirmed by all UN Conventions.
Not only is the Right of Return legal, but it is also feasible. We have studied the subject extensively. We examined where the Jewish settlers are located and on whose land they settled, village by village. We found the long-hidden fact, that 88 percent of Israeli Jews live in 12 percent of Israel or less and that refugees’ land is still largely empty.
The vast refugee land is inhabited by the Kibbutz (1-2% of the population) and largely controlled by the Israeli army. This made Israel what it is: The largest military base in the world which has a state.
Thus, Palestinians can return home and live in peace, ending a hundred years’ war. With them, Jews and others can live in peace and harmony under a democratic regime. But there is a basic condition for that to happen: Zionism must be abolished and all war criminals brought to justice.