Why the Palestinian president shocked his people over 'right of return'
President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to give up on a longtime Palestinian demand that refugees be allowed back into homes from before the 1948 founding of the Jewish state.
Mahmoud Abbas touched off a storm of debate in the Middle East over the weekend after the Palestinian president seemingly conceded the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, a symbolically loaded issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.Skip to next paragraph
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In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 news, Mr. Abbas said that although he is a refugee hailing from the Israeli town of Safed, he plans to remain in the West Bank rather than lay claim to his boyhood home as part of a peace deal.
"It's my right to see it, but not to live there," he said in English in a one-on-one interview. "I am a refugee, but I am living in Ramallah, and this is Palestine. I believe the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts are Israel."
Both Israeli and Palestinian observers saw the remark as breaking with a demand that refugees be allowed back into homes from before the 1948 founding of the Jewish state – an issue negotiators have tried to resolve behind closed doors but never has been discussed in the open among the Palestinians because it is a taboo.
Within a day after the Friday broadcast of the interview, Palestinians in Gaza – controlled by rival faction Hamas – burned posters of Mr. Abbas which were labeled as "traitor," and Mr. Abbas was forced to do damage control by telling Arabic language newspapers that he had only spoken on a personal level and there had been no change in the Palestinian position.
"What he said in the interview that was so hugely important to Palestinians was that 'I don’t have a right to return to my home.' If you were to take that literally, then that would mean that he is waiving the right of return entirely and there would be no negotiations," says Nathan Thrall, a Middle East expert for the International Crisis Group who focuses on the Palestinians. "It's the center of the entire conflict in the Palestinian view."