Abbas ignites controversy over ‘right of return’ remarks

Click photo to download. Caption: Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: World Economic Forum.( Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ignited a firestorm of controversy in the Middle East over the weekend, stemming from remarks that he made on an Israeli television interview that seemingly conceded the Palestinian “right of return.”

In an English language one-on-one interview with Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas was asked if he would like to go back to Safed, the northern Israeli town where he was born in 1935. Abbas responded:

"It's my right to see it, but not to live there," he said. "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."

Abbas’s response has been widely interpreted as conceding the issue of the Palestinian “right of return.”

The “right of return” is one the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict, perhaps the most important issue to the Palestinian people. As part of the 1948 War of Independence, over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees as a result of the conflict they initiated. Today, the refugees and their descendants (estimated to be around 5 million) remain largely stateless in refugee camps throughout the Arab world.

Over the decades, Palestinian leaders have promised to seek the return of the refugees as part of any final peace agreement. However, the Israelis see this as an existential threat and despite Palestinian rhetoric, its leaders in recent peace negotiations have conceded on the issue.

“It is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million,” Abbas said in 2011 according to the New York Times.

Abbas’s remarks were widely condemned in the Muslim world. In Hamas-controlled Gaza, pictures of Abbas were burned and he was branded a traitor. However, in Israel, his remarks were met with mixed reaction. Politicians on the Israeli left praised his remarks, while right-wing politicians, including Netanyahu, did not see any connection with his remarks and his actions.

Political analysts believe that Abbas was attempting to bring the issue of Palestinian negotiations to the center stage ahead of the Israeli January elections.

After the political fallout, Abbas later partially retracted his remarks, saying, "What I said about Safed is my personal stance."

Posted on November 5, 2012 .