Ian Black
The Guardian
November 26, 2010 - 1:00am

Refugees remain the most intractable issue of the Middle East conflict, as two new books show

A Palestinian girl at a refugee camp in Jordan. 1948 is a key date in Palestinian collective memory.

Memories and maps feature prominently in the experience of Palestinians – a people scarred by dispossession, dispersion, occupation and profound uncertainty about their future. So amid the latest wrangling over the stalled peace talks with Israel come two sharp reminders of the depth of the conflict and how difficult it will be to resolve.

Salman Abu Sitta, a refugee from 1948, has spent years cataloguing the course and consequences of the nakbah (disaster) that Israel's "war of independence" represented for his people. Now he has published an updated version of his massive Atlas of Palestine, stuffed with tables, graphs and nearly 500 pages of maps that trace the transformation of the country starting with its conquest by the British in 1917 and the Balfour declaration's promise to create a "national home" for the Jews.

Aerial photographs taken by first world war German pilots are combined with mandate-era and Israeli maps supplemented by digitally enhanced satellite images that record old tribal boundaries, neighbourhoods and even individual buildings. Most striking are the hundreds of Arab villages that were destroyed or ploughed under fields, as well as postwar Jewish settlements and suburbs. The Abu Sitta family lands, for example, are now owned by Kibbutz Nirim, near the border with Gaza.

Abu Sitta is a leading expert on the nakbah and what is nowadays widely described as the "ethnic cleansing" it involved. There can be no mistaking where his sympathies lie and where he stands in the febrile debate about Zionist intentions. Still, large parts of his account draw on the history of the 1948 war as rewritten by revisionist Israeli scholars in recent years as archives have opened up and old myths been demolished.

He is also a passionate advocate of the "right of return", under which Palestinian refugees must be allowed to go back to their lost lands and property. Refugees are the single toughest issue of the Middle East conflict: the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO implied that the right would not be exercised inside pre-1967 Israel, but only in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and so, apart from a symbolic number of family reunifications, there would be no mass "return" to west Jerusalem, Haifa, Lydda or hundreds of now non-existent villages.

The notion was that such an arrangement would be part of a pragmatic final peace settlement that drew a line under a painful past. Abu Sitta, like many Palestinians, fiercely opposed Oslo, and his views have not wavered. What has changed is the sense that as prospects for that elusive two-state solution fade, the only alternatives are either the status quo of Israeli occupation, cementing what some call de facto apartheid, or one single democratic state in which Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully together – and to which the refugees could finally return.

It is hard to imagine how Israel would ever voluntarily agree to surrender the Jewish majority it has within the 1967 borders – the raison d'être of the Zionist movement. Yet it remains taboo even to question whether that right is ever likely to be exercised. Andrew Whitley, a senior official of Unwra, the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, was forced to apologise recently when he called it a "cruel illusion" to suggest that the 1948 refugees would ever be able to go home.

Abu Sitta leafs through his atlas, which includes detailed plans for refugee repatriation, and insists otherwise. "In the age of advanced technology it is quite feasible to compare the rich and meticulously recorded history of Palestine with the existing electronic Israeli record of every Palestinian house and acre of land, who owned it and to which Jewish body it is leased," he writes. "From this, both cultural and physical restoration of Palestine could take place. What remains is the wisdom, enforced by political will, to implement it."

Social scientist Dina Matar also follows "the trajectory of a continuing nakbah," in her fine book about "what it means to be a Palestinian in the 21st century", but her mission is to record voices that are normally heard only in fragments and at times of crisis. This "composite biography" includes personal stories and "reconstructed experiences" from the 1936 rebellion against the British through to Oslo in 1993, and unifies the disparate worlds of Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria. Individual narratives of suffering, defiance and despair are linked by chapters of factual historical background, and tell of life in refugee camps, the experience of the Jordanian civil war or the first intifada, when the "children of the stones" took on the Israeli military but won only the brief attention of an indifferent world.

Matar, not surprisingly, identifies 1948 as the key date in Palestinian collective memory and notes "the persistent theme that the Palestinian sense of displacement was not the result of one specific event, but an ongoing process, continuing into the present."

Her telling subtitle – "stories of Palestinian peoplehood" – suggests that she too believes that the old aspiration of "statehood" is not likely to be realised any time soon.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017