Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 -19 May 2004
Issue No. 690
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salman Abu Sitta

Salman Abu Sitta:

Right of Return

A Palestine perspective on life

Profile by Amira Howeidy

Click to view caption
"People are always asking why did you leave? It doesn't matter. If it matters, then why did the British evacuate their women and children from London and then they were allowed to return after WWII? Why did the Jews themselves try their best to escape Nazi Germany if that is not a natural thing to do?"

"We will not talk about me," he says apologetically over the phone. "We talk about the cause," he repeats, " but not me."

The cause is, of course, Palestine.

I meet Salman Abu Sitta in the lobby of a Cairo hotel where he was attending a conference on "The strategy of dealing with the 1948 Palestinians". Participants included Arab members of the Knesset, representatives of 1948 organisations and Palestinian figures. His schedule has been hectic, as it has probably always been all his life. But he is, as always, energetic, smiling, scrupulously elegant.

"It was a good conference. It's an opportunity to meet with them," he says.

It must be. Palestinians are perhaps the only people in the world who suffer immeasurably -- are tormented really -- when they try to move, let alone travel, inside or outside their own country. As Palestinians mark the 56th anniversary of the Nakba, or Palestinian catastrophe, they are surrounded, almost besieged, by checkpoints, travel and movement restrictions in addition to a colossal "Separation Wall" which has left them imprisoned in cantons and Bantustans.

Given the distinctiveness of their situation, the displaced status of the Palestinians -- the only occupied people in the world today -- is identified by the year Israel occupied their land. The "1948 Palestinians" are those who remained in Palestine following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and were later given Israeli citizenship. The rest, including those displaced in 1967 are refugees. Approximately five million Palestinian refugees currently live in destitution in refugee camps in bordering Arab states, particularly Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The rest have settled across the Arab world, the US and Europe.

Abu Sitta is of the latter kind. His reputed "always-dressed-in-suits" attire portrays the image of a businessman, disbanding the stereotype historically intertwined with the label "refugee". But he is of the more fortunate displaced Palestinians.

Today he stands as an icon, perhaps godfather, of the Right of Return (ROR) movement, which seeks to advance, promote and enable the Palestinian Diaspora to return home. His most famous phrase in reference to ROR as an "inalienable and sacred right" is by large, the movement's motto.

Abu Sitta, 63, spent a lifetime digging, for every and any detail of information about, or related to, Palestine before, during and after the creation of Israel. It is well known that he has not left a stone unturned -- his mission encompassing not only documenting the Nakba, but ensuring as well that the memories and identity of the occupied homeland are never lost.

The documentation process began when he was 30-years-old, when he stumbled on the memoirs of the Turkish chief of Beir Al-Sabe' when Palestine was under Ottoman rule. The document dated back to the early years of the last century.

From then on, one thing lead fluidly to another.

"It sort of started from there, and it has never stopped," he says. "I kept collecting all and any material on every inch of my homeland."

Abu Sitta can probably tell you the original Arab name and route of any street in Palestine before Israel gave it a Jewish name or destroyed it completely. He can also tell you the original direction in which Palestinians ploughed their land before it was seized by Israel and deliberately ploughed in a different direction to erase traces of its original Arab ownership. And he tells you not in a furore of bitterness or emotion, but based on evidence before him: documented fact.

Despite becoming a refugee at the age of nine, when his family was forced into exile in 1948, Abu Sitta has seen more of his homeland than perhaps any of his countrymen. His compromise, for now, has been to watch it from the sky.

With the aid of hundreds of valuable maps, old pictures and continuously updated satellite images of Palestine, Abu Sitta keeps record of every inch of his homeland, if only from a distance. And because he recognises documents and maps are not entirely enough, he is engaged in collective efforts to document and advance the "Oral History" of the Palestinian Catastrophe.

Abu Sitta was born in Beir Al-Sabe' (Beersheba), in what is now central Israel. His family's land and town bears the family name, Maein Abu Sitta (the Abu Sitta springwell), which appears "on all the maps of Palestine from the 18th century onwards".

On one April morning in 1948, nine-year old Abu Sitta was summoned together with fellow schoolboys by their headmaster to tell them that the Jews occupied central Palestine. They were sent home immediately for their safety -- Abu Sitta having to make a gruelling 20km journey home on foot. A few days later his family moved to Gaza and joined the first wave of refugees.

"I never saw a Jew as a child, and I never knew what one looked like," he recalls. "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."

Between 1947 to 1949, almost 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed.

The situation was dire, and his family sent him to Egypt to resume his schooling. Within the unfamiliar walls of an Arab family in Helwan, Abu Sitta was forced to ponder notions well beyond his years.

"[I was forced to ask myself] what is this faceless enemy who has come from far away to make me a refugee?" he says. "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."

And perhaps it was a determination to overcome the forced circumstances that propelled him to excel. Abu Sitta moved to the prestigious Al-Saidiya secondary school in Cairo where he graduated with "excellence", ranking first in Egypt. After graduating from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering in 1958, Abu Sitta went to the UK to continue his post-graduate studies, receiving his PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of London.

The move proved profound -- the shift from the pan-Arab nationalist sentiments that were high in Egypt, to a wholly pro-Israeli climate in Britain, having an acute effect on him. .

"Israel's crime was hailed as a 'victory for humanity' and a 'miraculous act of God'," he says. "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."

Several decades later, the climate has changed drastically, with time proving reality to be much more nuanced than the façade that was offered for years to the world. The dynamics of the Palestinian question has taken on a multitude of shapes and forms. The rise and fall of the peace process, and the first and second Intifadas, have introduced new players into the scene. They range from armed resistance groups in occupied Palestine, to organised student activities in Western universities.

Despite the fact that the UN and the international community notoriously failed the Palestinians, civil society has not. Support for the Palestinians in the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that was held in Durban, South Africa illustrates that point. So too does last year's EU poll that revealed European public opinion's belief that Israel is a threat to world peace. Despite the politically driven media spin machine, the Palestinians have won for themselves a victory much more trying than war. After decades of struggle, they are no longer incessantly depicted as the terrorists and creatures of menace.

It was in this climate of turbulence and poignancy that the Right of Return Movement emerged. It is not a quixotic gesture or a romantic notion. Scientific, evidence-based studies by Abu Sitta show that the five million strong Palestinian Diaspora can in fact return home.

"It is legal and possible," he says with decisiveness.

He has said it hundreds of times and explained it in dozens of lectures. Demographically, their return will cause only a minimum Israeli relocation, in striking contrast to Israel's plans, he points out. He has authored four books on ROR and over a hundred papers and articles.

But because the return of millions of Palestinian refugees poses a threat to the foundations of a purely Jewish state, it is a right he says Israel wants to deny at any cost. US President George W Bush's recent support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's demand to drop the right of return dealt a political blow to the ROR movement.

But that has done little do shake Abu Sitta and his efforts.

The new American position on ROR has no importance from a legal perspective, he says, "because the right to return is an inalienable right and it is supported by international law and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No body can just cross it off."

The problem for Palestinians, however, is that the US government has blatantly taken alternate position.

"Which means," Abu Sitta explains. "That it will act publicly against it instead of acting in a lukewarm manner like it used to in the past."

"Bush says that this is up for negotiations which may reduce the finality of his statements. But at the same time," argues Abu Sitta, "you cannot negotiate an inalienable right. What you can do is you can discuss how and when it can be implemented, what are the logistics of doing that and for this we are ready."

The political problem that emanates from Bush's statement is that it placed a great constraint on the Israeli position.

"Because somebody like Shimon Perez who pretends to be more peaceful," he offers, "would not dare to say that we accept some ROR since somebody will tell him Sharon and Bush already agreed otherwise." Any future US government will also face the same situation because "no future American president will want to appear less supportive of Israel's policies."

But what's worse for Abu Sitta is the "climate" in the Arab countries and in some Palestinian circles.

These circles, he explains, "take refuge in Bush's statement by saying the US is against it, and you cannot fight that. This will mean that popular opinion amongst the refugees will be increasingly behind the ROR and, at the same time, increasingly divorced from the views of some of the Arab governments. This gap will create problems. First for the refugees who will have to fight a harder battle for their rights and second, the gap created between Palestinians and some countries like Jordan and Lebanon could probably cause unrest."

Abu Sitta is equally alarmed, if not horrified, at the readiness of a contingency of Palestinian politicians and intellectuals to compromise on ROR. He refers, it is clear, to the Geneva Accord, which was devised by Israeli and Palestinian figures in a bid to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, and which compromised on ROR.

"We have to explain that this view is a minority," he stresses. "Let alone that it's against international law and let alone that it has a sinister meaning which is perpetuating ethnic cleansing, which is clearly a war crime."

The ROR movement, however, has made powerful friends outside governments. They range from human rights groups, the Greens, anti-war and anti- racism groups (International ANSWER, the anti- war movement has officially adopted ROR as part of its agenda), to Third World groups and liberal voices in the Western parliaments.

"But the problem these people are facing is the ready-made accusation of being anti-Semitic. Of course no body challenges the meaning of the word Semitic, nor do they challenge that the slogan should not be a cover for war crimes because the facts depicted by TV cameras are indisputable."

In the next two months, two ROR conferences will be held in two European countries -- France and Germany. Abu Sitta hails the German conference as particularly significant because of the "intellectual terror imposed" on the Germans in criticizing Israel.

But perhaps the clearest sign of the movement's maturity may be the formation of the ROR Congress in London last October. Abu Sitta describes it as "a presentation of civil society which is not political, organisational or factional and strong from people from a representative body of 100 Palestinians from Rafah refugee camps to San Francisco campuses". Six committees were formed to defend ROR across the world. Abu Sitta was elected as the General Coordinator and Official Spokesman of the ROR Congress.

On 15 May -- the day Israel was created in 1948 -- these committees will commemorate the Nakba with a focus on areas with the largest concentration of refugees from Palestine 1948 such as Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Palestine maps will be printed and distributed to every Palestinian home and refugee camp. They will also distribute Daleel Hak Al- Awda (The Right to Return Guide) -- a small booklet for Palestinian youth. This endeavour will also include workshops for youth and housewives to educate them on their rights. Similar efforts will include Palestinians residing in Europe and the US.

"For the first time there is a concerted effort done all over the world," marvels Abu Sitta, his smile overpowering his face. Recently, he spent three days lecturing in Syria, Lebanon and in Jordan. "And I can tell you that the surge in the ROR movement is ever increasing. The special emphasis of dedicated young people in the ROR movement is extremely pleasing and of course belies the Israeli myth that the old will die and the young will forget."

Despite its validity, some, including Palestinians, have questioned the wisdom of defending a single element of the Palestine movement, independently of the entire "Palestinian question".

Abu Sitta smiles and nods knowingly. He is familiar with this debate.

"If you achieve the ROR which is an inalienable right, in a way, all the other rights will follow that, like self-determination, like being free from racism and discrimination. It follows on that because you are on home ground and then you can fight it. It's something you really can't contest. I want my house, I don't want your house. That's all I want."

One way of achieving that is by emphasising the "quality of work"; something Abu Sitta and the ROR movement have made a prioritised concern.

"Quality of work means you go over and above the emotional side of ROR," he explains. "You have to be armed with the facts and figures for children. It's really not enough any more that a grandmother says you come from that village in Palestine. They have to know where that village was, how its population was expelled, what happened to them afterwards, where is it located and what it grew. That also meant the importance of documenting oral history."

Oral history has evolved into a vital part of the cause, given that Palestinians don't have state archives. For the last 50 years or more, most of the narrative came from a few Palestinian writers and from many stories of Palestinian suffering. But it was never done in a form through which the main elements of Al-Nakba can be described.

Which is where Abu Sitta comes in.

The purpose of the network Abu Sitta leads is to streamline the collective efforts of the many people and organisations involved in documenting oral history, and to make it accessible for an ambitious project to construct a Palestine Museum and form a National Archive. This venture is funded by the Welfare Association (a Palestinian association formed in Geneva in 1982, headed by Abdel-Megid Shoman head of the Arab Bank, and others including Abu Sitta which looks after more than 400 projects in Palestine for health, education and identity.)

According to Abu Sitta, the museum will show all stages of Palestinian history and will have a special section on Al-Nakba and how Palestinians lived before, during and after 1948. In addition to valuable documents, the national archives will include voice, image and record .The original idea was to build it in Jerusalem on already allocated land, but in the light of the present developments, he says it is not clear where it will be built. The one thing that is clear, he says, is that wherever it will be constructed, there will be a duplication of it using new technology.

"No matter what, tomorrow or after tomorrow researchers and historians and schoolchildren will have this source available to them," he says in a low but sternly determined voice. "The narrative of Al- Nakba is not done properly yet. Although there are works like Al-Nakba by Aref El-Aref who was the first to coin the word "Al-Nakba", which is a seminal work, but in hindsight, you have to study it with modern mythology so that the facts are recorded in a coherent manner."

A third objective for creating the national archive is obviously using it for legal claims. "Palestinians can obtain solid proof of what happened to them and present it in any international court of law," he says, pausing momentarily. "But even if we don't prove that we have been expelled," he adds quickly, "it doesn't mean we don't have a case because we have the right to return regardless of the reason why we left."

"People are always asking why did you leave? It doesn't matter. If it matters, then why did the British evacuate their women and children from London and then they were allowed to return after WWII? Why did the Jews themselves try their best to escape Nazi Germany if that is not a natural thing to do?"

This is a man who has an argument for everything related to the Palestinian cause. And clearly, his talk is not the foundation on which to make political gains. Nor monetary ones at that. What Israel has relentlessly tried to destroy, this man has spent a lifetime trying to reconstruct. He has done so at the expense, in fact, of previous parallel aspirations. He was 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. No more. Abu Sitta closed down his successful company in order to devote all his time, effort, and in most cases, his money, to serve the Palestinian cause.

And nothing will compromise that commitment. You can tell from the obvious sparkle in his eyes.

"Regardless of what Bush declares," he says, "or what complacent Arab governments are willing to give up and what a handful of Palestinians are ready to surrender, the ROR movement will remain the biggest and possibly only potent force guiding the struggle of the Palestinian people in the years to come."

photos: Ayman Ibrahim

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