President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of the Palestinian Authority made headlines last week. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News, Abbas seemed to relinquish the demand for a right of return of refugees of 1948 to their former homes inside Israel, while reaffirming his commitment to non-violence.
Abbas himself is a refugee, having fled as a child from Safed (Tzfat) in the Galilee in northern Israel. Asked about his desire to visit his hometown, He replied: “It’s my right to see [Safed] but not to live there…. I am [a] refugee, but I’m living in Ramallah. I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts [are] Israel…. This is now and forever.”
Abbas’s statement merits attention in two different respects: in its substance and, more importantly, in the context in which it was delivered.
Did Abbas give up the right of return?
Unsurprisingly, the provocative substance of Abbas’s statement drew most attention. To Israeli ears, such words seem to confirm the central tenet of the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process: Israel relinquishing the land it captured in 1967—on which a Palestinian state would be established—in exchange for Palestinian acceptance of the outcome of the war in 1948, the creation of the state of Israel.
For Israelis, the two state solution necessarily entails that the millions of Palestinians descended from the refugees of 1948 will settle permanently outside Israel, either in the Palestinian state or elsewhere, including the countries where their families have resided for over 60 years. For Palestinians, the right of the return of refugees is perhaps the most cherished national demand and a cornerstone of the Palestinian historical struggle. Giving up the right of return, in theory and not just in practice, seems like a betrayal of the Palestinian national cause.