Few have documented Israel’s erasure of Palestine better than Dr Salman Abu Sitta. Best known for his ground-breaking project mapping historic Palestine and developing a practical plan for implementing the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Abu Sitta, who was born in the Palestinian town of Be’er Sheva during the British Mandate period, has spent 40 years digging for every piece of information documenting the localities of hundreds of Palestinian homes and villages before their existence was wiped off the map by Zionist colonisers. He is regarded as perhaps “the world’s foremost expert on the Nakba”.
MEMO caught up with Abu Sitta for a conversation about his new work: Atlas of Palestine 1871- 1877: This is Arab Palestine before the Zionist colonisation and began by asking him to speak about his ground-breaking work to which he has dedicated a significant part of his life mapping historic Palestine and why he undertook such a mammoth project.
Abu Sitta described his 1961 visit to London to complete his PhD as the pivotal moment in his life. Recounting the incident involving an encounter with a British official 61 years ago to renew his residency card, he discovered that the British had classified his citizenship status as “uncertain”. As far as Abu Sitta was concerned, the UK made him stateless with a stroke of a pen. What puzzled him most was why, despite over 2,000 years of uninterrupted history, a Palestinian from Palestine, had no official recognition in Britain. After also learning that Palestine was nowhere to be found in British maps and was renamed Israel, Abu Sitta set out to compile historical evidence, visiting archives and libraries across the world to recreate a vivid history of Palestine before its takeover by Israel.
Abu Sitta’s two previous works graphically recreated the map of Palestine: The Return Journey Atlas outlined the basic features of Palestinian villages with details of the present colonisation settlements that have been erected on their ruins. The second, Atlas of Palestine 1917- 1966, which is an A3 size volume with nearly 1,000 pages of detailed maps, charted every inch of Palestine before the Nakba – the 1947/48 expulsion of Palestinians from their land by Zionist paramilitary groups. The latest volume: The Atlas of Palestine 1871- 1877, incorporated new material that wasn’t included in the two previous volumes. More significantly, according Abu Sitta, it corrected many of the errors of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). This was an 1865 British initiative which followed French and German efforts to chart Palestinian territory.
Though the mission of the PEF was to ostensibly map Palestine and study the geography of the Bible in the Holy Land, in reality, the survey was a cover for the military objectives of charting Palestine and the region, which resulted in the British occupation of Palestine in 1917. PEF’s work, nonetheless, became a valuable record of Palestine at the time. Abu Sitta’s atlas carried out considerable research of the original documents used by PEF, corrected errors in geographical accuracy and place names and added newly discovered data not used in the published survey.
In his conversation with MEMO, Abu Sitta described some of the errors and many of the prejudices of 19th century writers that shaped PEF’s charting of Palestine. PEF, for instance, left out the names of hundreds of Muslim sites in its map and offered no more than a few pithy lines to describe the native Palestinian population that were living in the territory in the 19th century.
PEF’s erasure of Palestinian heritage was nowhere near the level that followed the Zionist takeover of Palestine. In fact, no equivalent crime against the Palestinians can be found in historical records despite the many rulers that changed hands over a 2,000-year period. Whether Palestine fell to the Ottomans, Christian Crusaders, Muslim Abbasids or Byzantine Christian, there has never been anything that comes near to the level of historical and cultural erasure that took place in the seven decades following the creation of the state of Israel. A striking example is the Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea who, in the year 313 AD, compiled a list of Palestinian localities when he charted Palestine. This Christian Bishop has become an important figure in Palestinian cartography.
Abu Sitta identified 139 Palestinian villages that were continually in existence from the Christian Byzantine period. By comparing the compilation of Eusebius using their Roman and Arabic names in Palestine within the Armistice Line of 1949, Abu Sitta discovered that out of these, 100 villages were depopulated and mostly destroyed by Israel in 1948. The remaining 39 are still inhabited by Palestinians in Israel.
As one of the strongest advocates for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, spending decades charting maps showing how this could be feasible, Abu Sitta insisted that this remains a moral and legal right that is not the gift of any government or Arab leader to give away and exchange for a normalisation of relations with the Zionist state.