Documenting the catastrophe

Amira Howeidy , Sunday 21 May 2023

The Palestinian yearning to return has been represented as a quixotic gesture, an impossible dream, in the face of Israel's efforts to obliterate the past and to massage history to make it serve Israeli interests. Yet for Salman Abu Sitta, a Palestinian, in exile, the true picture of the past must be preserved if it is to come to the aid of the present; the painstaking reconstruction of what happened in 1948 and since must be undertaken to ensure that the aspirations of the defeated live on, despite the brute facts of their exile and dispossession

The only surviving photo from Main Abu Sitta, the spring well and village that carried the family na
The only surviving photo from Main Abu Sitta, the spring well and village that carried the family name in Beersheeba. Salman Abu Sitta, aged 6, front centre. Photo: Mapping My Return, AUC Press, 2016



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998

Issue: 1-7 January 1998


Salman Abu Sitta's first act following the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords was to visit his former family home in Beir al-Sabe' (Beersheba) in what is now central Israel. It was his first visit for fifty years, and he took his daughter, Rania, with him. Nine years old in 1948, he and his family had been forced into exile by the establishment of the State of Israel that same year. 


But in the interim, and for the past 30 years, Abu Sitta has been engaged in the painstaking task of collecting documents and memories about his homeland, both from before and after May 1948. His goal: to ensure that the past lives on in memory, and that one day the approximately 5 million displaced Palestinians may return to their homeland, Palestine.

Thus far, friends say, Abu Sitta has put together what they describe as the most valuable, and perhaps unique, collection of documents and papers on Palestine and on land and property ownership there since the beginning of the century. He possess hundreds of maps of Palestine going back to the 19th century, through the establishment of the British mandate in 1917, and after. 


There are more than 150 eye-witness accounts on video by survivors of the Nakba, or 'Catastrophe', as the Palestinians call the disaster which befell them upon the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 . His aim however is to collect 1,500 such accounts, "three from each of the 532 villages which were depopulated". Such a library of first-hand accounts will, he says, be a powerful tool with which to prevent the obliteration of the past.


In the making of these testimonies "we discourage political statements," he says. "We simply ask these witnesses to remember what happened, and what they saw, how many people there were in their villages, how many survived, and so on. Although we already know what happened in 1948, there is still a shiver when we hear the story anew from each new eye witness." 


Through these accounts and other sources, Abu Sitta has compiled details of the numbers and the names of the Palestinians expelled from their homes in 1948. He has also been able to gain a greater understanding of how these expulsions were carried out. There are other documents in the collection, which he prefers not to make public "at the moment". It has been, after all, through such discretion over the past 30 years that he has been able to put together a collection of rare documents covering different aspects of the history of modern Palestine.


The project has several goals. The first of these, he says, is to "revive the collective memory of the Palestinians and the Arabs." And this "should be no mere emotional exercise; it should constitute the core of the Palestinian collective psyche, which can never be erased."


Secondly, however, he says that there must come a time when the Israelis themselves will be willing to admit their collective guilt, in the same way in which the Nazis were called upon to admit their crimes against the European Jews. And the collection will help them to do this.


Thirdly, the project should serve the Palestinian right to return, a right which Abu Sitta describes as "sacred." "It is both legal and possible," he says with confidence; "there is no doubt that it will happen one way or another. But in order for it to happen, you have first to document your home, your history and your roots." The author of dozens of articles on the right to return, this forms the theme of Abu Sitta's first book, which will appear soon.


Abu Sitta remembers his own exile in the following terms: "My family's land and town bears the family name, Maein Abu Sitta (the Abu Sitta springwell), and this appears on all the maps of Palestine from the eighteenth century onwards. I never saw a Jew as a child, and I never knew what one looked like. But in 1948 they came from Poland and from Hungary in bullet-proof cars, with machine-guns and mortars, while we resisted them with Ottoman Turkish guns. We became refugees at the muzzle of the gun."


Abu Sitta was at the time a pupil at boarding school in Beir al-Sabe'. He remembers that in April 1948, the Headmaster summoned the boys and told them that the Jews now occupied large areas of central Palestine. "He told us that it would be better if we returned to our families immediately, because he could no longer protect us". 


So he walked, a nine year old boy with two older relatives, for some 20 km, before being warned that "the Jews" were patrolling the countryside in cars, shooting at anything in sight. They were advised to throw themselves to the ground in the corn fields and smother themselves in dirt should they hear cars approaching.


The three made it to their homes, where Abu Sitta spent three days in bed to recover from the ordeal. And soon after the family moved to Gaza and joined the first wave of refugees. "Older people stayed there, while the young travelled further to resume their education or to look for work," he says.


 At that time, Kuwait was in the early stages of development, and it proved attractive to three of his brothers, who went there to work to support their families. Abu Sitta himself was sent to Helwan near Cairo to resume his schooling. "I remember that as a boy I used to ask myself: what is this faceless enemy who has come from far away to make me a refugee?...I couldn't imagine that these people, or anyone, could have so much hate and animosity in them to kill people, to take away their homes and their right to live."


"But the real shock came later when I went to the UK as a young man to continue my post-graduate studies only to find that this crime was hailed as a 'victory for humanity' and a 'miraculous act of God'. I was unable to comprehend how the West could be taken in by the baseless and criminal notion that the crime committed against us was in some way an act of divine redemption," he says. One powerful impetus behind the documentation project has been to correct this misconception.


Since he left his homeland, Abu Sitta's dream of returning has never left him. "I have kept in contact with those inside and have closely followed all the news; I have collected maps of Palestine whenever I could find them." Abu Sitta's yearning to see his homeland was so strong that he obtained satellite pictures of Palestine. "I could then see it from the sky, and see what changes had occurred. I could compare these pictures with the older maps or pictures I already had." 


Through these pictures, he has monitored the changes made to the old roads and alleys and the complete destruction of Palestinian houses and towns. This made it easier for him, when he visited his hometown 47 years later, to find his way, despite all the changes that had taken place. He was even able to locate the sites of his family's house and his school, though the buildings themselves had been destroyed in the interim.


"All the houses of our relatives and friends, everything had been destroyed. But because I had learnt every detail by heart, and had the new and the old maps to compare, finding my house and school was easy. But it was painful to see how they had deliberately changed the features of the place. They had chopped the trees down and ploughed the soil in the opposite direction, as part of a studied plan to obliterate all signs of our people." However Abu Sitta carefully documented and videotaped even that first visit.


It was Abu Sitta's engineering background that first helped him in his hunt for maps and documents on Palestine. After graduating from Cairo University in 1958, he received his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of London.


 He is the founder and director of a construction and development company that has worked for the World Bank, the Arab Fund, the Kuwait Fund and other organisations in the Middle East and Africa. He is a former member of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian parliament in exile) and is currently a member of the Geneve-based Palestinian Welfare Association.


The documentation process began when he was 30 years old, he says, when he began recording his father's experiences. His father told him about his memories of 1917, when British forces moved into Palestine, which was then under Ottoman rule. 


"He fought with the Turks --since they were Muslims-- and against the British," Abu Sitta remembers. "My father came to know the Turkish chief of the Beir al-Sabe' garrison many years later, I met the son of this man by chance, and he sent me his father's memoirs from the period, together with many pictures of Beir al-Sabe' dating back to the early years of the century."


From then on, one thing lead to another. "It sort of started from there, and it has never stopped. I kept collecting all and any material on every inch of my homeland." But it is still "painful to know that the Palestinians do not yet possess adequate documentation of their version of the story, or of the 1948 Nakba,"he says.


In the 1980s, Abu Sitta began examining the documents and maps from Napoleon's expedition to Palestine in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. "Luckily the Europeans are masters of documentation, even the documentation of our countries", he says. Over the years Abu Sitta has collected a wealth of such historical material --such as documents from the Palestine Exploration Fund, which date from 1871 when a group of British scholars travelled to Palestine to survey the Holy land. 


Under the patronage of Queen Victoria and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the mission produced 10 volumes of reports and 26 maps, covering all aspects of the people living there at the time, their towns, cities, villages, as well as the natural history of Palestine. "Of the 15,000 names of Palestinians listed in these volumes, not one is Jewish" comments Abu Sitta. "Contrary to prevailing beliefs, this proves that there was then no Jewish population in the place."


Although documentation remains a powerful tool in the Palestinian cause, it has, nevertheless, not been accorded priority by Palestinian officials. When asked if he had received financial support from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for his efforts, Abu Sitta said, "the simple answer is no."


Though a wealth of documentation was accumulated during the 1970s up until the 1982 Israeli invasion of the Lebanon, and the subsequent Palestinian expulsion, "unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority has not cared to make use of the massive amount of documents that have been collected, be these title deeds, birth certificates, or whatever." 


Had the Palestinian leadership not chosen to make the Oslo negotiations secret, Abu Sitta points out, and had made use of documents in the possession of the Palestinian people, then the resulting agreements would have been very different where the rights of the Palestinians were concerned.


So why wasn't this project -- of collective memory, of the documentation of the true picture of Palestine -- embarked upon earlier? Why did it take so long to get underway? According to Abu Sitta, the main reason was the aftermath of shock following the 1948 catastrophe. "During the fifties, when the shock of '48 was still overwhelming, the Palestinians' main concern was the attempt to return to their homes; documentation was considered to be of secondary importance.


Organizing national action was the top priority," he says. It was only the second Arab defeat in 1967, he adds, that brought new awareness and new goals for the Palestinian national struggle. Thus "the golden age of Palestinian mobilisation took place between 1969 and 1982, when the media was used in more sophisticated ways, more information was gathered, and there was a growing realisation of the importance of documenting the true state of affairs."


Besides its importance in maintaining Palestinian collective memory, documentation is, for Abu Sitta, also the key to engineering the return of the approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees to their country. Reduced to its essential components, he says, the Arab-Palestinian/ Israeli conflict is about the conquest of Palestine in 1948, and the expulsion of its people in order to accommodate newcomers from overseas. Half a century later, there are 4,942,121 refugees, expelled from 532 localities, without a home, identity or certain future. After 50 years of strife, it is abundantly clear that there can be no peace if their interests are not taken into account, and that they have no wish to go anywhere except Palestine.


"The yearning for the homeland is at the core of the Palestinian collective psyche,"Abu Sitta says. "Demographically, their return will cause only a minimum Israeli relocation, in striking contrast to Israel's plans," and he has published many studies showing the feasibility of return.


"The Palestinians are under no obligation, moral, legal or otherwise, to accept Israeli occupation of Palestine at their expense. By any standards, it is the Israelis who are under an obligation -- to rectify the colossal injustice they have committed," he says.


* Salman Abu Sitta is a Kuwait-based construction engineer. He is a former member of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian parliament in exile) and is currently a member of the Geneve-based Palestinian Welfare Association. 

This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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