Mahmoud Abbas

Of primary interest when examining the position of the Palestinian Authority with regard to the “right of return” is the stand of Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), president of the PA.

Abbas’s position on the matter is of long-standing and far precedes his presidency.

qIn 2000, as Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee, he wrote about the issues confronted in Camp David. As to the “right of return,” he said:

“We encountered, and will encounter in the future, fierce resistance on this subject from the Israeli government, because the bottom line is that [the return of refugees] means altering the demographic character [of Israel] that the Israelis hope to preserve.

“…It is noteworthy in this matter, and this is also what we clarified to the Israelis, that the Right of Return means a return to Israel and not to the Palestinian State… When we talk about the Right of Return, we talk about the return of refugees to Israel, because Israel was the one who deported them and it is in Israel that their property is found…”[1]

In 2003, he told heads and leaders of the Popular Councils in the Gaza Strip Refugee Camps:

“Peace will not be achieved without the refugees getting back their sacred rights, which cannot be touched… It is the individual right of every refugee, and no one can reach an agreement in this matter without his consent.”[2]

A day after the Fatah movement chose Mahmoud Abbas as its candidate for the January elections for PA president (to replace a deceased Arafat), in late November 2004, he told the PA legislature that he would follow in Yasser Arafat’s footsteps and demand that Israel recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

During a memorial for Arafat, who died November 11, 2004, Abbas declared “We promise you [Arafat] that our heart will not rest until we achieve the right of return for our people and end the tragic refugee issue.”[3]

And so has Abbas continued this theme over subsequent years.

At the Cairo Conference for “Palestinian National Dialogue, in mid-March 2005, at which Abbas led the PLO/PA faction, a declaration was made reinforcing the Palestinian demand for refugees to “return to their homes” in the current State of Israel.[4]

A subsequent Palestinian National Dialogue Conference – sponsored by PA President Mahmoud Abbas – was held in Ramallah and Gaza on May 25-26, 2006. At the end of the Conference, a statement outlining its principles was released. Among them:

“…the right of return is a sacred right of the Palestinian refugees.

“…The national dialogue conference rejects all attempts that aim to cancel the right of return of refugees and that aims to disperse the refugees in the various countries of the world. The national dialogue conference affirms that the right of refugees is a sacred right in their homeland and it is a collective and individual right that no force in the world can cancel the right of our people and the right of our refugees in their homeland and in their lands and homes.”[5]

At a public rally in the beginning of 2007, Abbas declared: “The issue of the refugees is non-negotiable… We… reject any attempt to resettle the refugees in other countries”[6]

With regard to the failed negotiations with Olmert, 2008, journalist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote: “Abu Mazen insisted on mass return of the refugees. That was the reason why Abu Mazen discarded the proposal and not, as proclaimed, due to Olmert’s waning days as prime minister. Abu Mazen said so himself, in his own voice.”[7]

At the Fatah Conference held in August 2009, Abbas reaffirmed Fatah’s commitment to the peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders (sic), with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for Palestinian exiles. [8]

In the weeks and months leading up to the Proximity Talks with Israel, and now, presumably, direct talks, Abbas has repeatedly included “right of return” among the demands of the PA:

  • Aides say Abbas wants guarantees that any such talks would quickly move to seeking final agreements on the core issues of the conflict – borders, settlements, right of return for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.[9]
  • Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will open negotiations on ‘core issues’ in for a demilitarized Palestine, and the right of return for refugees.[10]
  • “There is simply no evidence that any behind-the-scenes progress has been made on key ‘final status’ issues (borders, Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ ‘right to return’ to Israel)…”[11]

Writes Sami Moubyed, echoing many analysts:

“Abbas has no war medals on his neatly pressed Western suit, making it very difficult – if not impossible – for him to make any concessions on peace, and get away with it before ordinary Palestinians.

“Making peace needs decorated war heroes – Arafat would not have been able go to Oslo in 1993 without having led the Palestinian resistance for 30 years. Otherwise, he would have been labeled as a traitor by his own people. Arafat was a man who could take decisions, and bear the consequences. He would say: ‘Only this hand [waving his right hand], can sign a peace treaty with Israel!’

“If Abbas decides to make concessions to Israel, and signs a flawed peace treaty, he risks being killed by an extremist Palestinian. Precisely by his death, Arafat has marked the ‘red lines’ of Palestinian politics. What he did not concede during his lifetime nobody will be able to give after his death: abandoning Jerusalem as the capital of the ‘State of Palestine.’ and the right of return for refugees.[12]


It is instructive to consider, as well, statements on the issue of “return” made by other members of Fatah/the PLO/the PA.

Perhaps most striking, and revealing is the statement made by Sakher Habash, member of the Fatah Central Committee, in the course of a seminar on “The Palestinian Refugee from the Political Parties’ Perspective,” held at Al-Najah University in Shechem in 1998:

“…To us, the refugees issue is the winning card which means the end of the Israeli state. They have, therefore, refused to solve it this way. Meanwhile, we should not seek negotiable solutions.”[13] (Emphasis added)

A number of statements by relevant sources were released on Nakba Day, May 15, 2010 (Nakba: the “Catastrophe” – the day of mourning Israel’s founding).

Fatah released a statement declaring that:

“it will continue struggling until the principle of right of return as well as freedom and independence for the Palestinian people are achieved.

“The return of the Palestinian refugee to his or her home is a constant right that can never be debated and a solution to the refugees issue would never be fair as long as it doesn’t include all their historic rights,” said the Fatah statement.[14]

Abbas Zaki, member of the Fatah central committee and the former PLO representative in Lebanon:

We believe wholeheartedly that the Right of Return is guaranteed by our will, by our weapons, and by our faith…The use of weapons alone will not bring results, and the use of politics without weapons will not bring results. We act on the basis of our extensive experience. We analyze our situation carefully. We know what climate leads to victory and what climate leads to suicide. We talk politics, but our principles are clear.”[15] (Emphasis added)

The PA held a central rally in Ramallah, attended by members of the PLO Executive Committee and the Fatah Central Committee. Participants held keys representing their lost homes in Israel, and speakers emphasized the refugees’ right to regain their houses and lands and to receive compensation. One of the placards held aloft said “We will return to Haifa, Akko, Lod, Ramle, and Nazareth.”[16]

Fatah and Hamas members held a joint march in Gaza under the heading “United, We Shall Return.”[17]

The PLO international relations department stated in an official communiqué: “The refugee problem is sacrosanct, and is a top priority for the PLO leadership, which rejects the [option of] settling the refugees permanently in their host countries. The refugees have a legitimate right to return to the homes from which they were expelled… in accordance with [U.N.] Resolutions 194, 242 and 338 and the Arab peace initiative.”[18]

Hani Al-Masri, an official in the Palestinian Information Ministry and a columnist for the PA daily Al-Ayyam, wrote: “The Palestinian problem cannot be resolved without finding a just solution to the refugee problem, because [the right of return] is a natural, historical and legal right, and is included in international resolutions. U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 stipulates that the refugees must return to their homes and to the property from which they were expelled, and in addition must be compensated.[19]

Adel Abd Al-Rahman, columnist for the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, wrote: “One must defend the right that is sacred to every Palestinian, namely [the right] to return to his homeland, the land of his fathers, based on [his] natural and legal right to [his] land, history and identity, and based on U.N. resolutions, particularly Resolution 194… The right of return is a sacred right that no force or country – not even the Palestinian politicians – can revoke, because it is a political right of the Palestinians as a collective, as well as an individual right, and nobody can [waive it] on behalf [of the individual in question, not even] his father or mother. The right belongs not only to the refugees who were expelled in 1948, but to anyone whose father or mother is Palestinian, regardless of when and where he was born – for Palestine is Arab and Palestinian land, and it belongs to all Palestinians regardless of faith, race, color, gender, or political or ideological orientation…

“[Even] if the Palestinian leadership reaches a historic agreement with the state of Israel, this does not invalidate the Palestinian right of return. Every Palestinian may demand to return to his city, village, or [place of] origin, and [he may voice this demand] from any platform or at any international, national, or regional court, in order to realize the right of return and utilize every means in the struggle to return to the land of his fathers.”[20] (Emphasis added)

[1] Al-Hayat (London), November 24, 2000, as reported in MEMRI Special Dispatch #157, November 28, 2000.

[2] Al-HayatAl-Jadida (PA), October 25, 2002, cited in MEMRI Special Report # 15, April 29, 2003.

[3] AP report carried by Haaretz, November 23, 2004.

[4] Michael Widlanski, ‘In Arafat’s Footsteps,” Frontpage Magazine, April 8, 2005.

[5] Political Affairs Magazine, June 2, 2006.

[6] Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Abbas: Aim guns against occupation,’ Jerusalem Post, January 11, 2007. Abbas made his statement at a public rally.

[7] Ben-Dror Yemini, Maariv, March 31, 2010.

[8] Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Web Commentary, August 17, 2009.

[9] Modhammed Assadi, Reuters, February 19, 2010.

[10] The Guardian (UK), August 20, 2010.

[11] John Bolton, NY Daily News, August 25, 2010.

[12] Intifada – Voice of Palestine, September 1, 2010.

[13] Jerusalem Newswire, November 24, 2004. Was originally on the website of Fatah on August 12, 1998: – cited by IMRA:

[14] English People Daily, May 16, 2010.

[15] Interview to NBN TV in Lebanon on April 9, 2008, as reported by MEMRI in Report # 1896. Zaki was PLO representative to Lebanon when he gave this interview.

[16] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), May 18, 2010; WAFA (PA), May 17, 2010, both cited by MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 2995, June 3, 2010.

[17] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), May 16, 2010, cited by MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 2995, June 3, 2010.

[18] WAFA (PA), May 13, 2010, as cited by MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 2995, June 3, 2010.

[19] Al-Ayyam (PA), May 15, 2010, as cited by MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 2995, June 3, 2010.

[20] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), May 16, 2010,, as cited by MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 2995, June 3, 2010.