No Change in the Palestinian Position on the Right of Return

Vol. 12, No. 25    5 November 2012

     

  • Claims that Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas – in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Nov. 2, 2012 – had apparently relinquished the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees are baseless in light of the clarifications provided by Abbas himself, in which he called the return a “sacred right” and affirmed his full commitment to the basic Palestinian positions.
  • The gap between Israel and the Palestinians on the refugee question is unbridgeable. For the Palestinians, the right of return is a taboo matter that cannot be questioned. The formulation “a just and agreed solution based on Resolution 194″ does not imply a readiness for a possible Palestinian compromise. “Agreed” means compelling Israel to agree to implement the Palestinian demands for “justice.”
  • The PLO and the Palestinian Authority (as well as the Hamas government in Gaza) continue to cultivate in Palestinian society the idea of the refugees’ return, to prevent any possibility of resettling the refugees outside of the camps, and to maintain the role of UNRWA as a symbolic and practical manifestation of the demand for return.
  • According to the Palestinian consensus, the nonimplementation of the right of return will leave the doors of the conflict with Israel open, implying a justification to continue the armed struggle even after a Palestinian state is created. For the Palestinians, the refugee problem is a trump card with which they can keep confronting Israel.
  • The Palestinian arena’s harsh reactions to Abbas’ remarks indicate the inability of the Palestinian leadership, even if it so desired, to present a compromise position on the refugee issue.

 

Claims that Palestinian Authority chairman  has apparently relinquished the right of return are baseless in light of the clarifications provided by Abbas himself, in which he called the return a “sacred right” and affirmed his full commitment to the basic Palestinian positions. The interview by Abbas to Israel’s Channel 2 TV, broadcast on Nov. 2, 2012, stirred up a large-scale political storm both in Israel and the Palestinian arena with Abbas’ statements interpreted as a relinquishment of the right of return.

Abbas said in the interview that, as a native of the Israeli town of Safed, he desires to visit the town but not to live there. He further remarked that “for me, Palestine is the ’67 borders with East Jerusalem; I am a refugee, I live in Ramallah, the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, all the rest is Israel.”

The Israeli political leadership was in no hurry to lend credence to Abbas’ supposed readiness to give up the Palestinian demand for a return. Hamas, for its part, accused him of a treasonous violation of basic principles, with senior figures in the movement claiming he had in effect relinquished the right of return.

Within a day of the interview, the Palestinian news agency Wafa hastily published the text of an explanatory interview Abbas gave to the Egyptian Al Hayat channel on Saturday in Amman. Here Abbas complained of how the media, particularly Al Jazeera, had quoted parts of his statements in a way that lifted them from their context. On the right-of-return issue he again clarified his positions (free translation):

Since 1988 the Palestinian National Council has recognized UN Resolutions 242 and 338. And this recognition was reiterated a number of times in the Arab Peace Initiative, as well as before it and after it, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad agreed on this matter as well, and in the latest reconciliation agreement in Cairo there was agreement on the 1967 borders, peaceful popular resistance, and elections. This was with the participation of thirty-six representatives of the [Fatah] Central Committee and the secretary-general in Cairo last January, and it declared that there is no problem in agreeing on the 1967 borders and on East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, and on this all the Arab and Islamic states have agreed.

My words about Safed were a personal position, and they do not indicate a relinquishment of the right of return, since it is not possible for anyone to give up the right of return, because the wording of all the international and the Arab and Islamic resolutions states that a just and agreed solution must be found to the refugee problem based on [UN Resolution] 194, with the word “agreed” meaning in agreement with the Israeli side.1

Abbas also stated in this interview (as quoted by Wafa) that the refugee issue is “sacred,” and that it and the other basic issues would be discussed in the framework of the permanent-status agreement with Israel. He said the refugee issue would be negotiated on the basis of Resolution 194, which mentions the principle of the right of return with compensation for those who do not choose to return. After an agreement is reached with Israel, Abbas said, it would be presented for approval in a popular referendum.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the Palestinian presidential spokesman, sharply rejected the claims by Hamas leaders that Abbas had expressed a relinquishment of the right of return. In an official announcement, Abu Rudeineh asserted: “The president and the Palestinian leadership will never agree to a state with temporary borders, since whoever agrees to a temporary state [hinting at Hamas] is the one who gives up the right of return, compromises the basic national principles, and brings about a catastrophe that will afflict the subsequent Palestinian generations.”

Abu Rudeineh also said that the “refugees’ right of return is one of the permanent-status issues to be discussed with the Israelis such as borders and water. We adhere to the basic national principles, which the national institutions have affirmed, and there is nothing new in this position.”2

Nabil Shaath, the Fatah official responsible for foreign relations, claimed in an interview to the raya.ps website that Abbas’ statements as quoted in the media were taken out of context, and that in the full interview Abbas had said that “every Palestinian person has the right to return to his homeland but it is his right to choose and he himself will decide if he wants to return to one country or another.”3 Abbas also received backing from other Fatah leaders, and leaders of constituent organizations of Fatah, who underscored his fealty to the right of return.4

The gap between Israel and the Palestinians on the refugee question is unbridgeable. For the Palestinians, the right of return is a taboo matter that cannot be questioned. As far as resolving the conflict is concerned, Palestinian representatives base their position on the question of “justice” and not “compromise,” as is clearly evident in the resolutions of all the Palestinian institutions.

From the Palestinian standpoint, “justice” means fulfilling the rights of the Palestinian refugees in accordance with all the resolutions of international institutions, most of all Resolution 194, which, in their view, sanctifies the refugees’ right to return and compensation.

The formulation “a just and agreed solution based on Resolution 194” does not imply a readiness for a possible Palestinian compromise on the right of return. “Agreed” means compelling Israel to agree to implement the Palestinian demands for “justice.”

The PLO and the Palestinian Authority (as well as the Hamas government in Gaza) continue to cultivate in Palestinian society the idea of the refugees’ return, to prevent any possibility of resettling the refugees outside of the camps, and to maintain the role of UNRWA as a symbolic and practical manifestation of the demand for return.

The commitment to realizing the right of return was anchored in the “Law of the Right of Return of the Palestinian Refugees,” which the Palestinian Legislative Council ratified in 2008. The law states, among other things, that:

The right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes and property and the granting of compensation to them for the suffering that was their lot is a fundamental and sacred right that is not subject to purchase or sale or to conversion and no consideration [of a change in meaning], interpretation, or referendum will be applied to it.

The right of return is a natural personal, group, civil, political right that is passed on from father to son and is not cancelled with the passage of time or by the signing of any agreement, and it is not possible to cancel it or relinquish any aspect of it.

It is forbidden to settle the Palestinian refugees or to uproot them [from their place] as an alternative to the right of return.

Whoever acts in contravention of the injunctions of this law will be viewed as perpetrating a grave crime of treason and will be subject to all the criminal and civil punishments that have been set for this crime.5

In the Palestinian view, which receives support from Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, the right of return is a “private” right of each and every refugee, and hence the representatives of the Palestinian people (and the United Nations as well) have no authority to relinquish this right in the name of the refugees.

According to the Palestinian consensus, the nonimplementation of the right of return will leave the doors of the conflict with Israel open, implying a justification to continue the armed struggle even after a Palestinian state is created.

Any Palestinian leader who dares challenge this consensus and gives up the right of return in negotiations with Israel stands, at best, to be ostracized and removed from the stage or, worse, executed. The Palestinian arena’s harsh reactions to Abbas’ remarks to Channel 2 indicate the inability of the Palestinian leadership, even if it so desired, to present a compromise position on the refugee issue.

In sum, Abbas did not deviate from the established, familiar, basic Palestinian positions on the refugee issue, and he continues to regard the refugees’ return as a “sacred right” that is in the hands of the refugees themselves, with no one authorized to concede it in their name.

The Abbas-led Palestinian diplomatic effort, entailing a planned appeal to the United Nations later this month, centers on international recognition for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Abbas thereby hopes to win greater legal and political validation for the Palestinian demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, without the Palestinians having to give anything in return – let alone on the refugee issue.

The refugee problem is the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the Palestinians it is a trump card with which they can keep confronting Israel even after the state of Palestine is established, overcoming Israel demographically and changing it, in the long term, into part of a single Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

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Notes

1. http://www.wafa.ps/arabic/index.php?action=detail&id=141328

2. http://www.alquds.com/news/article/view/id/395348

3. http://www.raya.ps/ar/news/806897-shaath-banner-incorrect-translation-trimming-some-alkalamat-led-to-a-misunderstanding-of-the-president-39-s-remarks.html

4. http://www.wafa.ps/arabic/index.php?action=detail&id=141344

5. http://www.dft.gov.ps/index.php?option=com_dataentry&pid=8&Itemid=27&des_id=1063

About Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi

Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd.