In a significant hardening of the stated Palestinian negotiating position on the right of return, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he could not negotiate away the absolute right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to sovereign Israel.

Speaking to a crowd of Palestinians from East Jerusalem on Saturday, in an address largely overlooked because it coincided with the death of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Abbas also voiced a hard-line regarding a number of other matters on the negotiating table. He stated that no peace agreement would be possible without East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. He also refused to recognize Israel’s self-definition as the state of the Jewish people, a principle endorsed on Sunday by Arab foreign ministers. But while those two positions were not new, his tougher line on the refugees was.

The traditional Palestinian position on the “right of return” follows the language of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which stipulates a “just and agreed upon solution based on UN resolution 194.” This formula was used by Abbas in his speech at the UN last September, as well as at his speech at the World Economic Forum in Jordan last June.  But in his speech Saturday, Abbas made no reference to the international decisions pertaining to the matter.

“Let me put it simply: the right of return is a personal decision. What does this mean? That neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu-Mazen [Abbas], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone from his right to return,” he said.

A mechanism for compensating refugees choosing to remain in their host countries may be established, he noted, but the final word remains that of the individual refugee.

‘Abbas is aware that in the past his vulnerability was refugees,’ Ezbidi said

“The choice is yours. You want to return? You will return. You don’t? You’re free to remain; there is compensation and other details … I just wanted to remark on this point, that the right of return is a personal right. Even a father cannot forgo his children’s right.”

Abbas set out his tough stance as US Secretary of State John Kerry tries desperately to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a “framework” for continued negotiations on all the core issues of a future peace treaty. Kerry has made 10 trips this year to the region, to talk to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, and is set to return for an 11th time soon. The US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, said last week that the framework agreement would be presented shortly, but Netanyahu and Abbas are believed to disagree on almost every key aspect of a possible accord — notably including such central issues as refugee rights and the status of Jerusalem.

Formal Israeli-Palestinian talks, brokered by Kerry, began in late July, and the secretary had said at the time that he hoped to negotiate a full deal within nine months, but he has lately switched to drafting a framework accord simply to try to keep the talks going beyond April.

A toughening of Palestinian positions was to be expected from a leader who is widely regarded on the Palestinian street as too accommodating on the refugee issue, remarked Palestinian political scientist Basem Ezbidi of Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah.

“At this point Abbas isn’t really interested in showing any flexibility while the Israeli side remains as stubborn as it is,” Ezbidi told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview. “While the Israelis are stating hard lines on various issues, Abbas is doing the very same thing.”

The Palestinians have argued that Israel’s demand to leave IDF forces in the Jordan Valley in a final agreement contradicts understandings reached with former Israeli administrations which agreed to an international presence only.

“Abbas is aware that in the past his vulnerability was refugees,” Ezbidi added. “He was outspoken when saying that an ‘unconventional’ solution is needed. As someone who didn’t champion the right of return, he now sees an occasion to undo that.”

A Palestinian man walks in front of a mural calling for the return of Palestinian refugees (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A Palestinian man walks in front of a mural calling for the return of Palestinian refugees (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Himself a refugee from the city of Safed, Abbas was widely criticized by Palestinians following an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 on November 2012, where he said he had no right to return to his home town and had no territorial demands beyond the 1967 lines.

During his fiery speech on Saturday, Abbas was interrupted numerous times by the enthusiastic crowd, which repeatedly chanted Palestinian slogans.

Abbas paused once to comment on the slogan “millions of martyrs are marching to Jerusalem,” a slogan closely associated with his predecessor Yasser Arafat, who would often chant it in public rallies.

“‘Millions of heroes, or millions of free men are marching to Jerusalem’,” Abbas corrected his audience. “We want to go alive. We do not seek death, but we welcome martyrdom if it happens.”

Earlier in his speech, Abbas praised the behavior of the Palestinian villagers in Qusra, who captured and beat a group of settlers allegedly en route to carry out a “price tag” attack.

“The villagers circled them [the settlers] with their bare hands … they circled them and did not attack them because we are civilized, and have a just cause. Not like them, who attack trees and mosques. They were handed over to the [Israeli] coordination forces safe and sound. This should be a lesson in manners for these neighbors. They want to be our neighbors and we want to be [their] neighbors, but not this way, not with these manners.”