Salman Abu Sitta, who spoke of his work in a Stop the JNF UK webinar on 6th February, has for over 60 years pursued the political ambition to recover and present the evidence for what Zionist colonisation has sought to erase: the Palestinian villages, sites, monuments and names, in short the economic and cultural infrastructure of the society Israel destroyed in the Nakba and thereafter. The atlases Salman has produced, are documentations that span cartography, demography and history. They testify to one of the great colonial crimes of the 20th century. As he reminded his audience, where there is a crime, there is also a criminal with the determination to remove traces of the crime.
In 1948, at the age of 11, Salman was driven by Zionist militias from his home when they destroyed the village of Ma’in, near Beersheba, in the Naqab. In his autobiographical book, Mapping My Return, a Palestinian Return (2016), he recalls that traumatic event and the resolve to which it gave birth: “We carried nothing with us, no clothes, no papers… I looked back at the smouldering ruins… If the future remained vague for me at that moment, the past that I had just left behind remained frozen in my mind and became my present forever…. I spent the rest of my life on a long, winding journey of return…”.
Salman discussed in his webinar talk how he searched in archives to find documentary evidence of the destroyed Palestinian villages. Many land records were pillaged and burnt by the Israelis but, in Munich, he found aerial photos that the German air force took during the first World War to spy out British military positions and, inadvertently, have proved to be revealing of the Palestinian villages, monuments, mosques, churches and land cultivation that were destroyed in 1948. In the UK, he uncovered maps and land records, of the British colonial authorities, that were buried by being now filed under ‘Israel’.
Salman’s work of recovery has a clearly defined political purpose: it is to empower the Palestinians who were driven out of their land and homes, to demand, in accordance with UN Resolution 194, their right of return and the restoration of, or compensation for, the properties taken from them. This he argues is not only a solution that is just, but it is also feasible. Most of the Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel remain unoccupied. There is no shortage of space preventing Palestinians to return and Israel has nothing to lose but its racism. Paul Kelemen