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An open letter from a Palestinian refugee to an ex-Irgun terrorist on the 70th year of the Nakba

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This open letter from Salman Abu Sitta to Uri Avnery is the latest in an exchange that began in 2014. Mondoweiss published their earlier correspondence here. 

Uri Avnery is a co-founder of the Israeli “peace bloc” Gush Shalom, a former Knesset member and a journalist. In his youth, he was a member of the paramilitary group the Irgun.

Salman Abu Sitta is a Palestinian who became a refugee at age 10 during the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1947-49 war. 

This year Palestinians around the world commemorate 70 years of un-ending Nakba. They have neither forgotten nor forgiven.

I visit Palestinian communities in various cities in Europe and America frequently. These thoughts occurred to me which I would like to share with you, not because we have the same thoughts but because we are on opposites sides. May be a due lesson is learnt.

In 1948, young Helmut- later Uri (19 years of age) carried a machine gun and, with his motley battalion, deprived the inhabitants of Al Qubab -Ramleh District and Huleiqat – Gaza District, among many others, from their homes, with many killed in the process. Helmut and cohorts committed them to a life of exile as refugees. Young Helmut must have seen a sea of bewildered humanity, seeking a shelter from this unknown evil which descended upon them from nowhere. He must have seen them hurrying in fear to the next village not yet attacked. When the next village was attacked, both ‘guest’ and ‘host’ sought safety at another village, which was then attacked. And so on. All of them, 247 villages in southern Palestine, were totally ethnically cleansed. They ended up in 8 refugee camps in Gaza. To this day, 70 years later.

(L) Salman Abu Sitta and (R) Uri Avnery.

In 1948, young Salman (10 years of age) heard from his elders about this unknown plague. He remembered in his memoir “Mapping my Return,”

Who were these people? They were not our neighbors and
certainly not our friends. People said they were a motley assortment
of Jews imported from across the sea. They called them “vagabonds of
the world.” What did they look like? Those who had seen them close
up said they wore a variety of odd uniforms, quite unlike those in the
British army. They did not all look the same: some were blond, some
swarthy, some dark, and some looked Inglizi. They spoke a babble
of languages—English, French, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, and
Spanish, to name but a few. Sometimes they used what was thought
of as a secret language, like a code or cipher; it was ibrani or Hebrew.
Those who came from the north said these people were not awlad
Arab, or Arab Jews, who spoke Arabic like us. They were ruthless,
unruly, and vicious, and they hated the Arabs. They did not know the
country, but they always carried with them detailed maps, no doubt
obtained from the British.

Salman’s village was attacked out of nowhere on 14 May 1948. On that night, he was awaken from his sleep,

“Oh my sons, the Jews are coming to take you. The Jews are
coming,” cried Abdullah’s mother. An old woman and a light sleeper,
she was overwhelmed by the sight of a long line of lights probing
the darkness. There, on the near horizon, we saw the headlights of
twenty-four armored vehicles approaching us. A monster with forty eight
eyes faced us, with the ominous roar of its engines.

Next day, there was carnage, death and destruction in his village. Salman became a refugee.

In all these 70 years, Uri, have you thought of those innocent peaceful people who became refugees, the people you thought they were human dust to be dispensed with?

Did you ask: What happened to them and their children, now scattered in the world?

Are they the same simple farmers who were living, born and dying on their land for centuries?

Do these people, you think, now know better those mysterious invaders whom they called “vagabond of the world”?

Fate carried them to the same places from which those “vagabonds,” came, in various cities in the western world.

What did this reverse journey of Palestinians and Jews make of them? We know it made “Israelis” of Jews. What about Palestinians? Did they remain Palestinians, those sons and daughters of simple fellahin?

In my travels, I saw them everywhere. It was a beautiful site. They proved that ” There’s on this [their] land that is worth living for,” in Mahmoud Darwish words.

In a neighborhood of Copenhagen resides a community of Palestinian refugees, their little Palestine. One refugee from Lubiya is a professor at Copenhagen University. He documented Lubiya in his dissertation, in film and numerous seminars.

A young woman born in a refugee camp in Gaza became a member of Parliament in Sweden.

A young man in Malmo became a researcher in the ancient history of Palestine exposing the myths of the Biblical stories.

A young woman in Freiburg is a lawyer in international affairs who can speak Arabic, English, German and Spanish.

The well known British Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), UK with 200,000 members, has Palestinian members on its staff.

In Rome I met a mature man, a refugee from Lydda, a survivor of Dahmash mosque massacre. He became a professor of Arabic at the University of Rome and translated works of revolutionary Palestinians like Ghassan Kanafani books into Italian.

A young woman in Philadelphia became a refugee twice in 1948 and 1967. She became a well known novelist. Her books about Palestine were translated into 16 languages.

In New York, I met a young woman, still speaking Arabic with typical fellahin accent. She is active in human rights at New York courts.

You may have read about the Palestinian woman who created the computer language which enabled Stephen Hawkins to speak. Or the young Palestinian woman, a refugee from Yibna, born and raised in Shatti refugee camp in Gaza, who became a team leader at NASA.

In Australia, a Palestinian woman from a village north of Gaza is a well known playwright and writer.

In central Japan I met Palestinians from refugee camps in Jenin, Ein el Helwa and Rafah, teaching Middle Eastern studies including Arabic to Japanese students.

I could count many many more.

You will notice that my examples emphasize the rise of the role of women. Probably in old Palestine they would be carrying water earthenware from the spring and raising children in their tranquil life. On a fateful night in 1948, their mothers carried their babies into safety in the middle of night under the rain of bullets from your hypothetical machine gun.

Al Nakba exploded among Palestinians the desire for, even obsession with, education. They quickly realized, having lost their country, that education, and indeed brain power, is the possession that the Israelis cannot rob them of. The rate of high school students among Palestinians is comparable to Jewish Israelis. By contrast, the figure among Palestinians in Israel is a fraction of that.

Can we say then that the Nakba is a blessing in disguise? (See my 2005 article):

It certainly is not a blessing.

Al Nakba, the most devastating event in Palestine’s 5000 year history, created the will and determination to survive by any means. With that, the Palestinians created a presence and impact in many cities of the western world. They also multiplied ten times.

Is this the “population-exchange” which Ben-Gurion dreamed of?

Far from it.

Palestinians became ambassadors to expose, at least by their presence and performance, the lies and misinformation which the Zionists have been propagating in the west for many decades.

No wonder BDS blossoms and the Palestinian Friendship societies mushroom. Many Jews in the west with good conscience who felt deceived by Zionist hasbara are turning to support Palestinian rights.

All this no doubt will lead eventually to the real Great Return March, now only along the barbed wire of the Armistice Line, and in many squares and plazas of the world cities.

Did Ben-Gurion think of that when he ordered the expulsion of 220 villages in the winter of 1948, before his state was declared on May 14, before the British left and before any Arab regular soldier entered Palestine to save Palestinians from the fate of Deir Yassin?

Did you think of that when you mowed Palestinians with your machine gun in 1948?

Did you ever think that the “human dust” you threw away will turn into a seed which grew to a huge tree with branches extending to many cities in the world?

Ben-Gurion is dead.

You still have the chance to do something about it.

Will you?

3 May 2018, the 70th year of Al Nakba

Salman Abu Sitta

Salman Abu Sitta is the founder and president of the Palestine Land Society, London, dedicated to the documentation of Palestine’s land and People. He is the author of six books on Palestine including the compendium “Atlas of Palestine 1917- 1966,” English and Arabic editions, the "Atlas of the Return Journey" and over 300 papers and articles on the Palestinian refugees, the Right of Return, and the history of al Nakba and human rights. He is credited with extensive documentation and mapping of Palestine's land and people over 40 years. His widely acclaimed memoir "Mapping my Return" describes his life in Palestine and his long struggle as a refugee to return home.

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7 Responses

  1. pabelmont on May 14, 2018, 12:14 pm

    Beautiful letter, Salman Abu-Sitta. I like especially the stories about Palestinian women who did important work and rose in the societies of the scattered Palestinian world.

    And what can your old friend Uri say, anyhow? And as for Israel, recall that — as Proudhon so correctly said — all property is theft. Whether that was true before the invention of capitalism and settler colonialism, I cannot say, but surely Israel is the “poster child” for that (anachist) aphorism in today’s world!

  2. smithgp on May 14, 2018, 2:12 pm

    I don’t know: will winning Uri Avnery over to the side of equal rights be a victory? Certainly, very soon after the nakba that he helped to perpetrate and has so disappointingly valorized ever since, he became an indefatigable campaigner for “peace” with the “Arabs”–at a time when proclaiming such views required considerable moral courage. Now that it’s clear that “peace” with the “Arabs” is a cruel trap, getting Avnery to finally repudiate Zionism and own up to his crimes would be a huge step–at least for him and for those of us who have admired him for years despite our reservations. But in today’s Israel, and among today’s Israel lobby in the U.S., flawed leftists like Avnery have zero influence. Would NPR interview him after his (hypothetical) epiphany? I don’t think so. Uri who?

  3. inbound39 on May 14, 2018, 9:22 pm

    Salman Abu Sitta, an extremely well articulated letter. Emotional,honest and truthful and illuminates the very strong spirit of the Palestinian People. I am Scots and as a child my parents and grandparents educated me about the English treatment of Scots. Very similar. Forced expulsions and land theft.

    I now live in New Zealand and I am a former member of the Australian Navy who participated in the Vietnam war.I was living in New Zealand when the then Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir David Lange and his Labour Party declared NZ Nuclear free thus banning America’s nuclear fleet from entering New Zealand waters or docking in their ports. I have never felt so proud of New Zealand for taking that stand than I did then. Again I was proud when The French terrorists were caught for bombing the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand and jailed. I was even prouder when Mossad agents were caught here falsifying New Zealand Passports and they were jailed and the Israeli Embassy was ejected from New Zealand along with all its staff. Move ahead to John Key taking office, whom I might add is Jewish, in his forst month in office he quietly reopened the Israel Embassy….no referendum……no discussion was heard publically. It occurred around the time Israel last attacked Gaza and there on the TV was the Israeli Ambassador to NZ.

    John Keys National Government did make amends though as it pushed the last Resolution through the UN declaring settlements illegal and calling for an end to the occupation to Benjamin Netanyahu’s disgust. We have a Labour Government once more with Jacinda Ardern, a fine intelligent young woman who speaks her mind. If we cast our mind back to Israel entering the UN and being granted full membership in exchange for implementing Resolution 194, which Israel, to this day, as we all know, has never implemented. It would be a marvellous opportunity for Jacinda to remind Israel that it agreed to implement Resolution 194. If Israel refuses it would be an opportunity to either suspend Israel from the UN or expel it for failing in its commitment. So many silent politicians around the World and no accountability for Israeli crimes. How bad does it really need to get before anyone demands sanctions against Israel?

  4. Vera Gottlieb on May 15, 2018, 9:14 am

    And I continue to be ashamed of my Jewish background. I have no use for israel and have been boycotting ALL their products for a very long time.

    • catalan on May 15, 2018, 9:56 am

      “I have no use for israel and have been boycotting ALL their products for a very long time.”
      I do too. I also boycott Nestle (Crunch, Kit Kat), Starbucks and Chevrolet. They help the occupation. We each help.

  5. WebSkipper on May 15, 2018, 3:35 pm

    Salman Abu Sitta is the author of several fantastic books: “Atlas of Palestine”, “Mapping My Return”, and “The Palestinian Nakba 1948”. Not long ago, I found a copy of “Atlas of Palestine” online as a PDF. The last I looked, it was pretty much prohibitively expensive (for me, anyway).

  6. Richard Lightbown on May 20, 2018, 3:42 pm

    Uri Avnery has for a very long time ducked out of telling about the truth that he lived and saw in 1948/9. I hope he will take this chance before it is too late. For there to be reconciliation there has to be truth. And if you see this Mr Avnery, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

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