Dr. Salman Abu Sitta: Atlas of Palestine 1948

Dr. Salman Abu Sitta: Atlas of Palestine 1948

Reconstructing Palestine
Ten years in the making, Salman Abu Sitta's Atlas of Palestine 1948 is an heroic undertaking. It is, writes Amira Howeidy, nothing short of the resurrection of a land.

The film Bab Al-Shams (Gate of the Sun) tells the story of the Palestinian inhabitants of the village of Ein Al-Zaytoun, which was attacked by Jewish groups in 1948. The villagers were forced from their homes, along with 800,000 other Palestinians who were similarly expelled. While the majority of Ein Al-Zaytoun's surviving refugees were driven, under Israeli gunfire, to Lebanon, some of the film's protagonists managed to stay in Deir Al-Assad, a village in west Galilee.

Bab Al-Shams may deal with events that took place 57 years ago but they are historically accurate -- recorded in Palestinian oral history and now in the Atlas of Palestine 1948 -- published three months ago.

Turn to page 147 of the Atlas and you will find Ein Al- Zaytoun on the map, with a seamless collection of aerial photographs as background. A mosque, cemetery, school and spring are marked on the eastern side of the village.

On page 62 Israeli war crimes from 1947 to 1956 are documented. Ein Al- Zaytoun, it is revealed, was attacked twice by Zionist groups. The first attack was on 2-3 January, 1948, when the Haganah blew up several houses and killed 23 Arabs. The second occurred four months later, on 1 May, when the Palmah took between 40-100 Arabs prisoner, massacred 37 of them and then blew up and burned several houses.

The 428-page Atlas contains information on 1,300 towns and villages, 11,000 landmarks and 20,000 place names. In its pages 15,000 sq km of Palestine are carefully mapped as they were in 1948, on the eve of the creation of Israel. Five thousand photographs, taken by the British Royal Air Force's aerial survey in 1945 and 1946, were added to the Atlas to help in visualising the information contained in the maps. Although the photo coverage constitutes only 50 per cent of the Atlas the images cover the most populous and fertile areas of Palestine -- including 610 Palestinian villages and towns.

Part one of the Atlas contains 60 maps: a cartographic dissection of Palestine under the British Mandate. They describe the partition plan, armistice line and Palestine's borders, delineating the landscape inhabited by the Palestinian population, the various phases of Israeli occupation and the 1948 massacres and atrocities. In addition there are maps illustrating patterns of exile and of refugee.

Fifty-two tables document -- among other things -- population composition and land ownership according to 1945 village statistics, Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1920-1945, infrastructure and service buildings, land sales to Jews in Palestine by non-Palestinian absentee landlords and the levels of destruction inflicted on Palestinian villages.

Salman Abu Sitta, the Atlas 's author, has just finished a presentation to Al-Ahram Weekly and grins boyishly as he carefully folds the elegant black cover of the volume. The smell of new paper escapes from the large-format (31.5cm x 38cm) and heavy (6kg) magnum opus.

"I'm happy I'm still alive," he laughs. "I was worried I'd fall ill or die before finishing this."

The first thing a Palestinian refugee would want to see in this Atlas is his or her home village or town when it was still Palestine. The Atlas offers just that.

"You won't find Israel on this map," says Abu Sitta, "just roads."

Anyone wishing to visit places that existed in Palestine in 1948 can follow the maps and get there given, of course, that they are able to negotiate Israel's appalling restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, from check points to the Apartheid Wall.

"The Atlas," says its author, "is a record for Palestinians."

When the day comes -- and he believes it will -- for the Palestinians to demand compensation for the use of their property the records contained in the Atlas will be important in any negotiation. Its huge data- base, far from being an exercise in nostalgia, provides the basis for future scenarios.

"I can construct a model of how Palestine will be when the Palestinians return. At the same time I can construct another model of who is there now, what kind of people," says Abu Sitta. Its documentation of Jewish war crimes, ethnic cleansing and atrocities (many of which are sourced to Israeli historians) could easily form the basis for a war crimes tribunal.

The Atlas cleverly weaves the past (a detailed 1948 map of Palestine), the present (today's existing roads) and the future (Abu Sitta's vision of how five million Palestinian refugees scattered all over the world can return home).

"When someone destroys your homeland and pushes you out of it you face two problems," says Abu Sitta. "One is to return to it, which after time you will, and the other is to know what it was."

Page 93 of the Atlas shows both the location of destroyed or depopulated Palestinian villages and the extent of Israeli urban/rural expansion in the last 57 years. The map illustrates how most new construction took place around Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. The remarkable fact is that the sites of 90 per cent of Palestinian villages are still vacant and that a further seven per cent are on the edge of Israeli expansion.

It took Abu Sitta a decade of work and large quantities of money -- most of it his own -- to compile the Atlas. He relied extensively on maps, aerial images and documentation from the British mandate, which lasted 30 years.

Abu Sitta, more than anyone else, perhaps, recognises the political, legal, historic, social and emotional importance of the Atlas to dispossessed Palestinians.

"The map has a very important function -- it is the ID, the birth certificate, of the place," he says.

As the Atlas indicates the transformation of Palestine into Israel was a unique historical occurrence. The systematic destruction of the Palestinian landscape was carried out in order to build Israel on its ruins. While history is replete with acts of destruction and the expulsion of people from their homelands there has never been such a total and deliberate obliteration of history, of place names and written records and the replacement of those names and their history, as has occurred in Palestine.

Abu Sitta recounts how, when the guns fell silent, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, formed a committee to erase all the Arab and Palestinian names then in use and replace them with Hebrew ones. The Atlas contains a 23 page index of the original Arabic names.

One of the most remarkable revelations of the Atlas is how the Israelis got what Abu Sitta calls "an instant state" on May 15, 1948. For when the British left they abandoned the infrastructure of an entire country.

"What is a country?" he asks. "It's not only a land. In every district in Palestine, how many water wells were there? How many water towers and water tanks?"

The Atlas documents the number of churches, mosques, schools, convents, and orphanages. It catalogues institutions, civic buildings, even the length of railway line.

"It takes 100 years to build a country, but the Jews got an instant state."

The existence of that instant state pulls the carpet from beneath one Israel's founding myths -- that it was built on "a land without a people for a people without a land".

There were people, many hundreds of thousands. Israel has attempted to eradicate their lives and their culture. Bab Al-Shams attempts to visualise them on screen. Abu Sitta's Atlas of Palestine 1948 documents them in painstaking detail.

The Atlas of Palestine 1948 can be purchased from the Palestine Land Society www.plands.org,www.plands.org,email: info@plands.org