Commentary

Are the Palestinians Giving up the Right of Return?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas seems to have come closer than other Palestinian leader to dropping one of the most long-standing and symbolically important Palestinian demands: the right of return. In an interview last week, which took place on the Israeli Channel 2, Mr. Abbas seems to have conceded that — at least from his own personal point of view — he could not lay claim to a permanent return to pre-1967 Palestinian territories. The Palestinian refugees’ right of return has been a constant bone of contention for the two negotiating parties, with Palestinians in refugee camps unwilling to give up their ancestral homes and Israelis fearing the demographic end of the Jewish state that would result from an influx of approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees.

The reaction from the Palestinian side was quick, with many, including Abbas himself, suggesting his comments did not reflect the position of the Palestinian negotiating team. From Gaza, Hamas was especially scathing. Meanwhile, the main thrust of the Israeli reaction has been one of skepticism, although some on the left have tried to embrace Abbas’ moderate position to provide him the political cover he needs. Despite the fallout, Abbas has indicated the push at the UN for a more elevated status accorded to the Palestinian delegation will continue as scheduled for later this month.

Sensing the implications of Abbas’ interview, his political advisor, Nimr Hammad, spoke with the Palestinian News Agency Al Wafa to clarify Abbas’ remarks, suggesting: “the president did not say in his interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television station that he gave up the right of refugees to return to their homeland.... Hammad said the issue of refugees will be discussed along with all final status issues, including settlements, Jerusalem, borders, and water....Hammad criticized  Hamas position on the interview, saying it has accepted the two-state solution. He said Hamas’ claims that Abbas’ statements were blow to reconciliation were feeble.”

Other Palestinian leaders were also quick to react to President Abbas’ statement. According to a Maan News report, “Fatah leader in Gaza Yahya Rabah said Saturday that the UN bid for non-member status does not affect the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Rabah told Ma'an that the Palestinian Authority is seeking recognition as a state under occupation, pointing out that the right of return is enshrined under article 11 of UN resolution 194. The resolution states that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to their homes and compensation must be paid to those that choose not to, Rabah said.”

The same report also cites the Deputy PFLP secretary-general Abdul-Rahim Mallouh who, in a not-so-subtle jab at Abbas, argued “that no individual is allowed to waive the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Mallouh said that Abbas is fully responsible for his recent remarks on Israeli TV about the right of return and violated several resolutions of the PLO's executive committee. The right of return has not been discussed by factions at any stage because it is an inalienable right.”

In Israel, the comments made by Mahmoud Abbas were received with skepticism and even with some shoulder shrugging, even though the Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Abbas’ words. The Jerusalem Post editorial, for example, didn’t find anything new in Abbas’ statement, since they were “reminiscent of statements the PA president purportedly made during negotiations in 2008 with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni....Even if we are to take Abbas’s comments at face value and believe that he and others in the PA are responsible leaders sincerely interested in working toward a sovereign Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel, this is not enough. Abbas is paying for his own and his leadership’s insistence on saying one thing in public and something else altogether behind closed doors or in an interview aimed at the Israel public.”

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Roni Shaked makes a similar claim, arguing that the Palestinian public is unprepared to accept a proposal like the one Abbas hinted at in the interview: “The Palestinian Authority's leadership, particularly after Yasser Arafat's death, has gradually come to terms with the notion that the Palestinians will not be able to realize the right of return....But the general Palestinian public, including the refugees themselves of course, is not willing to give up this right....This gap between the leadership and the public is huge, but Abbas' statement may ignite a debate and start a process that will lead to the acceptance of reality. It may turn the right of return into a dream that will never be realized.”

Finally, others in the region were more understanding of Mr. Abbas, even though there is a clear sense that giving up on the refugees’ right of return is one step too far and one that few if any would be willing to give up on. In an editorial, the Saudi Gazette tried to simplify the debate by noting: “Every now and then it’s useful to take a closer look at the nature of the ongoing struggle in Palestine, for it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. The general idea is simple. The Palestinians are fighting for a fully independent state on all the land occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and demanding recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees. Like any good politician, Abbas is trying to get on his opponent’s good side....There is a limit to how far Abbas should go to appease Israel. The right to return to lost lands is a deeply cherished dream of Palestinians which Israel wants to quash.”

Similarly, the Khaleej Times editorial called Abbas’ statement an ‘unwarranted give’ adding that “Abbas has opened a Pandora’s box. The Palestinian president’s quest to be seen as a partner for peace has put him in trouble....Abbas, by saying that his birth place, Safed — now under Israeli tutelage by virtue of being occupied in the 1967 war — will no more be part of a future Palestinian state, has unnecessarily puzzled the entire geographic paradigm. This undue concession to Israel has locked Abbas in a confrontation with Hamas, and the like....Abbas’ unnecessary gibe is likely to weaken his momentum at the United Nations where he had been campaigning to attain the non-member observer status....the stated position of the Palestinian Authority is quite obvious. It can’t be twisted with the dubious intent of denying the dispossessed nation its fundamental [right] to have a free and sovereign state.”


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