Recent comments by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he appeared to undermine the demand of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to “return” to Israel, have agitated not only the Israeli political system, but the Palestinian street as well.
In an interview broadcast Thursday on Israel’s Channel 2 News, Abbas said he felt he personally had no “right” to return to his birthplace in Safed — located in northern Israel — that the Palestinians had no territorial claims to pre-1967 Israel, and that there would be no third armed intifada as long as he led the PA.
Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza Saturday night in a demonstration organized by Hamas, local media reported. Protesters carried signs dubbing Abbas “traitor”; one sign read “the refugees will not forgive your crime, O Abbas,” while another asserted: “Abbas, history does not recall a worse case of treachery.”
Maher al-Houli, a professor of Islamic law at Gaza’s Islamic University, declared during a procession in Gaza that “Acre, Safed and Haifa are just like Jerusalem, and there is no negotiating on one inch of Palestinian land.”
“ِِAll of Palestine, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] River is the property of every Palestinian, wherever he may be,” Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil was quoted by the pro-Hamas daily Felesteen as saying. “No [other] entity can be recognized on our land.”
Bardawil added that Abbas was only representing himself in the interview with Israeli television and must either apologize to the Palestinian people or resign. Youssef Rizqa, an adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, went even further on Sunday, equating Abbas to Palestinians who sell land to Jews — an act tantamount to treason under Palestinian and Jordanian law.
But criticism of Abbas was not limited to Gaza or the Islamic right. In an op-ed piece Saturday titled “Please don’t speak on our behalf,” the editor-in-chief of the influential London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdul Bari Atwan, chided Abbas for forsaking his birthplace for political expediency.
“If Abbas does not want to return to Safed and wishes to remain in Ramallah or live in his Amman home, that is his prerogative,” continued Atwan. “But in that case, he should not speak and purport to represent six million Palestinian refugees. By limiting Palestine to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, [Abbas] is providing free concessions and compromising Palestinian principles to please the Israelis, blatantly disregarding the Palestinian people and its national sentiments,” Atwan wrote.
The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has mostly been engaged in damage control.
“I have not and will not forgo the right of return,” Abbas told official Palestinian news agency WAFA, claiming that his detractors did not watch the interview in its entirety. A section omitted from an earlier report of the interview by Channel 2 was broadcast on Palestinian national television Saturday.
Abbas also told Egyptian satellite channel Al-Hayat Saturday that his critics — and particularly the Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera — were biased against him, adding that his statements have been consistent whether he was speaking with Palestinian, Israeli and American audiences.
He added that even Hamas and the Islamic Jihad had agreed to recognize Palestine along the 1967 borders, as well as conducting peaceful, rather than armed, resistance to Israel.
“Using weapons is a violent act, and I do not want to employ violence, because I am not convinced of its necessity,” Abbas told the Egyptian channel. “It’s also a losing battle with Israel.”
“Abbas carries the banner of return,” read an op-ed piece by Nabil Abu-Rudeinah in the PA mouthpiece Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah Sunday, accusing Hamas of a malicious media spin to harm Abbas’s legitimacy. Abu-Rudeinah, a spokesman for Abbas, accused unnamed “Palestinian and Arab sources” of coordinating an attack on Abbas to thwart the Palestinian bid for UN recognition as a non-member state this month, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported.
“Those jealously guarding the right of return should carefully read what President Mahmoud Abbas told the Israeli channel… before passing inaccurate judgement,” wrote columnist Adel Abdul Rahman. “They should conduct a patriotic, sensible and reasonable debate far from the premeditated campaign waged by the leaders of [Hamas's] black coup in the southern Palestinian provinces [of the Gaza Strip].”