x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Abbas does U-turn on Palestinian refugees' right to return

Palestinian leader says his remarks were only 'personal stance'.

JERUSALEM // Palestinian refugees still have the right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel, Mahmoud Abbas has clarified after recent comments of his on the sensitive subject prompted outrage.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) president's rivals in Hamas and even his allies attacked him over remarks made on Friday, accusing him of bowing to Israelis by abandoning the issue that many Palestinians see as central to their cause.

In those comments, aired by Israel's Channel 2 television network, Mr Abbas said Palestinians would be limited to a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. "Everything else is Israel," he said, adding that he had the right to visit "but not to live" in the city of his birth, Safed, which is inside Israel.

"I am a refugee but I am living in Ramallah," he said.

Many Palestinians saw that as a formal dropping of their long-standing right-of-return demand. But speaking on Egypt's Al Hayyat television, Mr Abbas clarified his previous remarks as only his "personal stance" on the matter.

"It means nothing about giving up the right of return," he told the television station on Saturday. "No one would give up their right of return."

About 750,000 Palestinians either fled their homes or were expelled to surrounding countries during and after the fighting that led to Israel's creation in 1948.

Palestinian refugees now number in the millions. Israelis consider their return a mortal threat to their country, and some of them praised Mr Abbas' original remarks on the issue .

"This is a brave and important public declaration in which [MrAbbas] makes clear that his aim for a state is only within the West Bank and Gaza, and not in the territory of the state of Israel," Israel's president, Shimon Peres, said on Saturday.

He added that Mr Abbas's "courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace".

During the Oslo Peace Accords of the early 1990s, Palestinian and Israeli peace negotiators agreed to settle thorny issues such as refugees, as well as Jerusalem and borders, to final-status negotiations.

While they never reached that stage, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that Mr Abbas chairs has agreed to negotiate with Israel a just solution to Palestinian refugees, which could include compensation schemes and very limited returns of refugees inside Israel.

George Giacaman, professor of democracy and human rights at Birzeit University near Ramallah, said it was unlikely Palestinian officials would ever formally drop the right of return without receiving a substantial concession from the Israelis.

"Many Israelis assume Palestinians should give up right of return in return for nothing," he said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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