There’s nothing new in Mahmoud Abbas’ and the PLO’s renunciation of Palestinian refugee rights

Israeli- and US-backed Palestinian Authority leader and nominal PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas caused renewed consternation among Palestinians last week with his renunciation, on Israeli television, of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes from which they were ethnically cleansed by invading Zionist gangs during and after 1948, and his redefinition of Palestine to include only the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In a “clarification” on the Egyptian TV channel Al-Hayat, Abbas resorted to his usual tactic of blaming the media for somehow distorting words that everyone could hear come out of his mouth and claimed his words had been misinterpreted and that he was speaking only personally and not representing policy.

But he is lying. Abbas’ words demonstrably represent long-standing Palestinian Authority and PLO policy of giving up refugee rights.

Abbas “clarifies”

From Haaretz:

In an interview seen as conciliatory to Israel, the Palestinian president had said that although he is a refugee from Safed, he does not intend to return to the city as a resident - if anything, he would visit as a tourist.

“Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital, this is Palestine, I am a refugee, I live in Ramallah, the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel.”

But in a follow-up interview with the Egyptian media outlet Al-Hayyat on Saturday, Abbas emphasized that those remarks reflected his own personal opinion and should not be taken as policy:

“What I said about Safed is my personal stance. It means nothing about giving up the right of return,” he said. “No one would give up their right of return. But all those international formulas, especially that of 194, speak of a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee issue, and ‘agreed-upon’ means on the part of Israel.

(For another report on Abbas’ “clarification” see this from the Kuwait News Agency)

A determined effort to give up refugee rights

It is true that the venue and way that Abbas made his statements was particularly distasteful, but it is important to know that there is nothing new in his determined effort to liquidate Palestinian refugee rights.

This Palestinian “leadership” has been trying to surrender these rights to Israel for years. One of the important revelations of the Palestine Papers – Palestinian Authority and PLO peace process records made public in early 2011 – is that Abbas’ “negotiators” had essentially already given up the right of return in US-sponsored negotiations with Israel. As Al Jazeera’s Laila Al-Arian reported:

The Palestine Papers show that Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiators were prepared to make major concessions on the refugees’ right of return: on the numbers potentially allowed to return to their homes in what is now Israel; on whether refugees would be able to vote on any peace agreement; and on how many would be able to settle in a future Palestinian state.

In an email Ziyad Clot, a legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators on the refugee file, writes, “President [Mahmoud] Abbas offered an extremely low proposal for the number of returnees to Israel a few weeks only after the start of the process.”

The papers also reveal that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed that 1,000 Palestinian refugees be allowed to return annually to Israel over a period of five years - totalling just 5,000, a tiny fraction of those displaced after Israel’s creation.

On January 15, 2010, [Palestinian negotiator Saeb] Erekat told US diplomat David Hale that the Palestinians offered Israel the return of “a symbolic number” of refugees.

According to the documents, not only did Palestinian officials offer a low figure of returnees, the chief negotiator of the PLO, Saeb Erekat, said that refugees would not have voting rights on a possible peace deal with Israel.

Consistent collusion against refugee rights

What came out in the Palestine Papers was consistent with Abbas positions that were previously revealed. In a barely coherent December 2009 position paper authored by Erekat and distributed to diplomats, Erekat summarized the position on refugees. Here’s how I reported on it in March 2010:

Abbas had offered (and Israel had rejected) that only 15,000 refugees per year return to the lands from which they were ethnically cleansed in what is now Israel, for a period of ten years. This effectively cancels the right of return, and acts as a de facto recognition of Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state” by conceding that its racist exclusion of non-Jewish Palestinians trumps the refugees’ human right to go home.

Moreover, the Erekat paper makes no mention whatsoever of the “right of return” — a fundamental consensus demand of Palestinians inside the country and in the diaspora — but refers vaguely to a “just and agreed solution in accordance with UN [General Assembly Resolution] 194.” It does not call for implementation of the resolution — which demands that any refugee who wishes to do so be allowed home “at the earliest practicable date.” Needless to say, what Israel considers “just” and would agree to is completely at odds with Palestinian rights and international law. Indeed, Olmert had offered the return of 1,000 refugees per year for five years — or about one tenth of one percent of all refugees.

It started with Arafat

It is also important to note that the PLO’s willingness to abandon refugee rights did not begin with Abbas. In a 3 February 2002 op-ed in The New York Times, then PLO leader Yasir Arafat wrote:

In addition, we seek a fair and just solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees who for 54 years have not been permitted to return to their homes. We understand Israel’s demographic concerns and understand that the right of return of Palestinian refugees, a right guaranteed under international law and United Nations Resolution 194, must be implemented in a way that takes into account such concerns.

“Demographic concerns” is of course Israel’s thinly-veiled racist code for not wanting too many non-Jews sullying the yearned for ethno-religious purity of the “Jewish state.”

In other words, Arafat signalled his acquiescence to the racist Zionist position that Palestinians born in Palestine and violently expelled by Zionists just for not being Jews, should also be prevented from returning also just because they are not Jews.

In practice, Arafat was willing to subordinate the fundamental human rights of Palestinians to Israel’s crude racism in the name of “peace.”

A new interpretation of 194?

What Abbas’ Israeli TV interview did reveal was a novel interpretation of Palestinian refugee rights which underscores his determination to liquidate them no matter what. Look again at Abbas’ “clarification”:

“What I said about Safed is my personal stance. It means nothing about giving up the right of return,” he said. “No one would give up their right of return. But all those international formulas, especially that of 194, speak of a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee issue, and ‘agreed-upon’ means on the part of Israel.

UN resolution 194 does not condition Palestinian refugee rights – or any basic Palestinian human rights – on Israel agreeing that they be granted. Palestinian human rights exist independently of whether a racist settler-colonial regime agrees to them.

And in no case in modern history have refugee rights been conditioned on a regime’s willingness to accept them. In the former Yugoslavia, to give a current example, the right of hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to their homes – now in areas dominated by regimes dominated by a different ethnic group to that of the returning refugees – has been implemented and practiced, with full international support, regardless of whether or not the local regime would prefer to maintain a different ethnoracial demographic reality.

In his attempt to “clarify,” Abbas has, it seems, only confirmed his implacable hostility to Palestinian refugees and their rights.




AH, So it seems you've joined the Anti - Arafat bandwagon. The man who recovered the name of Palestine is somehow a traitor to the Palestinian cause.

He mesmerizingly & fanatically fought for his country even before you Palestinian "Activists" were born or in your diapers.

"In practice, Arafat was willing to subordinate the fundamental human rights of Palestinians to Israel’s crude racism in the name of “peace.”

So, Why did he give the green light for the Second Intifada commencement?

"Arafat signalled his acquiescence to the racist Zionist..."

So if he's such a traitor why was he killed? Absolute utter nonsence! The man who brought Palestine onto the international arena somehow betrayed his cause and his people?

Why don't so called "Liberals" like you go off to Palestine, Let's see what you achieve there Mr. Know It All. I'm certain Palestinians will warm to your "Liberal" secular ideas in no time!


> Why don't so called "Liberals" like you go off to Palestine, Let's see what you achieve there Mr. Know It All

Agree: So easy for Mr. "Know it Ali" to criticise the man who lived and died, fighting for the Palestinian cause, from the comfort of Greater Chicago (not Greater IsraHell)! Worse still, to put words in Arafat's mouth (knowing a dead man can't defend himself!) - it irks me and I'm not even Palestinian!


Ha Ha It's really very comical- as RWNJ CONJOBservaTURDs are the same the world over no matter the country of origin such as the one to whom you responded to. Present to them a rational argument, and all they have in response are Strawmen, Red Herrings, Hasty Conclusions, and Over Generalizations; but just as the bite from an apple does not the whole apple make, so to, a one or two point Arafat disagreement about refugee rights does not a Traitor make, but oddly enough Ali never even used the word Traitor in association with his comment about Arafat, nor did Ali present any nullifications of any good that Arafat had done over the years. Oh, well, Right wingers what else can one expect? Ya gotta love their nuttiness and enjoy the good laughs they bring to the table of any discussion.


Any two state solution will be a result of an agreement of both the Israelis and the palestenians . Their is no way the Israelis will accept any return of the refugees , that will kill the " Jewish and democratic " Israel . If Arafat and the PLO knew that in 1988 when they declared independence on 22% and accepted Israel on 78% , wasn't that a surrender of the refugees right of return ? The only way the refugees right will be realized is when the Zionist " Jewish and democratic" project is defeated by the efforts of the people of the holly land .

Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.