Ramallah, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has denied giving up on the refugees’ right of return, saying remarks about not returning to his home town, which is now in Israel, was a “personal position.”
“I have never and will never give up the right of return,” he told Egypt’s Al-Hayatt Egyptian satellite channel late on Saturday, according to a transcript released on Sunday.
In the interview, Abbas sought to explain remarks he made in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television on Friday in which he appeared to renege on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they either fled from or were forced out of during the 1948 war which attended Israel’s creation.
“I want to see Safed,” he told Channel 2, referring to the town where he grew up which is now in northern Israel. “It’s my right to see it but not to live there.”
His remarks were hailed as “courageous” by Israeli President Shimon Peres but sparked fury in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip where thousands poured onto the streets in protest.
“Talking about Safed is a personal position and does not mean giving up the right of return,” he told Al-Hayatt.
“No-one can give up the right of return as all international texts and Arab and Islamic decisions refer to a just and agreed solution to the refugee issue, according to UN Resolution 194, with the term ‘agreed on’ meaning agreed with the Israeli side,” he said.
“I do not change my position – what I say to the Palestinians is no different from what I say to the Israelis or the Americans or anyone.”
The issue of the refugees would only be resolved in final status negotiations with Israel, he insisted.
“The six main issues, including that of the refugees, will be put on the table for discussion in the final phase,” he clarified.
“The refugee issue, based on UN Resolution 194, will be subjected to a popular referendum and people will either accept it or reject it.”
Commenting on the Friday night interview, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that the Palestinian leader had quickly gone back on his comments, and said Abbas’s real stance on the refugees would only become clear in direct peace talks.
“I watched the interview with President Abbas at the weekend. I heard that since then, he has gone back on his words,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in remarks his relayed by his office.
“Only through direct negotiations can we clarify what the real positions are. If Abu Mazen [Abbas] is really serious about advancing peace, then from my perspective we can sit down together immediately,” he said.
There are more than four million Palestinian refugees scattered across the region – those who fled or were expelled in 1948, and their descendants.
The Palestinians have always demanded that the Jewish state recognise their right of return to homes in modern-day Israel in keeping with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
Israel categorically rejects the right of return, which would end its Jewish majority, but is prepared to accept them living in the promised Palestinian state.
Abbas’s remarks were immediately welcomed as “courageous” by Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak also hailed his stance as “very important because of its clarity” in an interview with the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.
Israel’s top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper also hailed the move as a “realistic and very courageous look” at the issue, but said his outlook was not shared by the Palestinian people.
Giving up the right of return would be “tantamount to giving up on the dream of greater Palestine,” the paper said. “That disparity between the leadership and the general public is enormous.”
The rival Maariv newspaper said that if Abbas was serious, it was an opportunity that Israel should not miss.
“Israel ought to take Abu Mazen’s statement seriously. It even ought to leverage it. Mainly, Israel ought to put it to the test,” wrote commentator Ben-Dror Yemini.
“Abu Mazen took a small step, one that might prove to be meaningless. But that is a step that must not be ignored. The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court. He should do something with it,” he wrote.