President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t say he has given up on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel during an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News, one of his aides said on Saturday.

Speaking to the Palestinian news agency WAFA, Nimer Hammad, a political adviser to Abbas, claimed that the head of the Palestinian Authority had hypothetically referred to what would occur when a Palestinian state is established.

“What was said is what is going to happen when the state of Palestine is established alongside Israel,” said Hammad, “and therefore the president never mentioned the word giving up the ‘right of return’.”

Hammad said earlier that Abbas was being “realistic,” noting, “He knows he can’t bring back five-and-a-half million Palestinian refugees to Israel.”

Hammad was responding, in part, to strong criticism by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who said that Abbas’s comments in the strikingly moderate interview were “extremely dangerous” and contradict longtime Palestinian demands. Haniyeh called for a massive rally in Gaza Saturday evening to protest the PA president’s comments on Israel and Palestine.

During the interview with Channel 2 News Thursday, Abbas took a notably moderate position on the refugee issue, and explicitly said that the Palestinians have no territorial demands on Israel in its pre-1967 lines.

When asked what he considered to be Palestine, Abbas responded that “Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever … This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah.”

Interviewer Udi Segal cut in: “Sometimes your official television… speak(s) about Acre and Ramle and Jaffa [all cities within sovereign Israel] as ‘Palestine.’”

“I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine,” said Abbas, “and the other parts (are) Israel.”

Noting that he himself was born in Safed, in what since 1948 has been northern Israel, Abbas said he had visited the town and would like to see it again, but not to make his home there. “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there,” he said, in comments that, if applied to all Palestinian refugees and descendants, would represent a dramatic shift in Palestinian policy.

In the interview, whose moderate content contrasted deeply with the bitterly hostile speech the PA head delivered to the United Nations General Assembly a month ago, Abbas also urged Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to return to the negotiating table. His only condition was that Netanyahu declare his agreement to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, he said.

Hammad said further that the PA leader’s comments were not to be taken as his platform for future negotiations with Israel and that he was merely being “realistic.”

“When the president was asked about refugees and what was his view on where Israel stand on this issue, Abbas said the Arab peace initiative, UN resolutions, international initiatives and the decision of the Palestinian National Council of 1988 talked about a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital alongside Israel and about the issue of refugees based on UN Resolution 194,” Hammad said, according to WAFA.

Hammad also defended the PA’s position vis-à-vis the outraged Hamas response to Abbas’s statements, saying that the Fatah leader has “accepted the two-state solution,” and that, on the contrary, the Islamist group’s statements “sell illusions to our people.” Hammad accused Hamas of using any excuse to “maintain divisions” between the Palestinian people, WAFA added.

Hamas read Abbas’s remarks as suggesting millions of refugees and their descendants would not return to the places they fled or were forced to leave in wars with Israel.

“It is not possible for any person, regardless of who he is … to give up a hand’s width of this Palestinian land, or to give up the right of return to our homes from which we were forced out,” Haniyeh said.

The fate of refugees is on one of the most emotional issues at the heart of Israel-Palestinian conflict. The refugee issue has been a big obstacle in peace talks. Israel says their entry would be demographic suicide and expects refugees to be taken in by a future Palestinian state. Israel has absorbed large amounts of Jewish refugees over the decades including those that fled from Arab countries in 1948 and 1967.

AP and Asher Zeiger contributed to this report.