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Monday, November 5, 2012
No Change in the Palestinian Position on the Right of Return

No Change in the Palestinian Position on the Right of Return
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi, November 5, 2012
Jerusalem Issue Briefs
Vol. 12, No. 25 5 November 2012
http://jcpa.org/article/no-change-in-the-palestinian-position-on-the-right-of-return/

-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.

* * *

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. and is a former advisor to the
Policy Planning Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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