Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is facing criticism from Palestinian refugees for saying that he does not want to "flood" Israel with millions of refugees.
Abbas made his statement during a meeting in his Ramallah office earlier this week with dozens of Israeli students – the first direct encounter of its kind between the Palestinian Authority president and Israeli youths.
Abbas has also come under criticism for breaking a ban by Palestinian activists on meetings with Israelis. The ban has been imposed over the past few years by "anti-normalization" activists who oppose such meetings between Israelis and Palestinians.
Abbas's controversial remarks about the "right of return" highlight the difficulties facing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his efforts to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinian reactions to Abbas's remarks show that the issue of the refugees remains a sensitive and explosive one that could torpedo any agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Abbas told the Israeli students that the claim that he was seeking to "flood" Israel with five million refugees was nonsense.
"There is propaganda saying that Abu Mazen [Abbas] wants the return of five million refugees to destroy the state of Israel," he said. "This is not true at all. All what we said was: Let's place the issue of the refugees on the table because it's a sensitive case which needs to be solved in order to end the conflict and so that the refugees would be satisfied with a peace agreement. But we are not seeking to drown Israel with millions in order to change its demography. This is nonsense."
Representatives of Palestinian refugees rushed to issue condemnations of Abbas, accusing him of relinquishing the "right of return" of millions of Palestinians to their former villages and towns inside Israel.
In Lebanon, where some 450,000 Palestinians live in several refugee camps and are exposed to Apartheid Laws that deny them access to many jobs and economic, health and educations services, Abbas's comments were received with deep resentment. During an emergency meeting in one of the refugee camps in Lebanon, Abbas was accused of "abandoning the right of return and harming Palestinian rights."
The refugees said they were particularly enraged over the fact that protest letters they sent to the Palestinian Authority embassy in Beirut were totally ignored.
Dr. Esam Udwan, an expert on refugee affairs, was quoted as saying that "Abbas's statements have caused damage to Palestinian rights." Accusing Abbas of providing Israel with concessions in return for nothing, Udwan said, "These remarks reflect Abbas's conviction that the issue of the refugees is ineffective and they have no right to return because this would mean drowning Israel. This is completely unacceptable. Who said that there are only five million refugees? The real number is eight million. Abbas mentioned the five million who are registered with UNRWA and benefit from its services. But there are millions of others who do not receive services from UNRWA and are not registered with it. This does not mean that they should be denied the right of return."
Ali Huwaidi, another expert on refugee affairs, also lashed out at Abbas: "Regardless of Abbas's statements, the right of return is guaranteed, individually and collectively, through UN resolutions. The refugees will not give up their right no matter where they are living today. Abbas is worried about flooding Israel with five million refugees while Israel has brought one million people from the former Soviet Union and no one complained about this. Our refugees will not accept any alternative to their right to return to their homeland and we do not care what Abbas's position is."
Many Palestinians said that Abbas was not authorized to make any concessions or speak on behalf of the refugees.
This was not the first time that Abbas had come under attack on the issue of the refugees. Last year, Abbas told an Israeli TV station that he personally does not want to return to his former hometown of Safed in northern Israel. That comment too was seen by his critics as a sign that he was wiling to "surrender" the "right of return" for millions of refugees.
Referring to Abbas's stance on the refugees, the Palestinian online newspaper Rai al Youm wrote, "President Abbas has given up his personal right to return to his hometown of Safed. He said he does not want to return to his home and will live in Ramallah. This concession, in our view, is a big sin because President Abbas should set an example for his people and not make concessions on their rights. We call upon President Abbas to stop speaking about the issue of the refugees because they haven't authorized him to make any concessions on their right of return."
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also joined the chorus of Abbas critics. The group said in a statement that Abbas's comment about the refugees was a "dangerous concession" which reflected only his personal position. "The Palestinians are not bound by these statements," the PFLP said.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups have also strongly condemned Abbas's statements as "dangerous," adding that he does not have the authority to speak on behalf of all refugees. The groups also attacked Abbas for holding "warm" meetings with the Israeli "enemy."
The reactions to Abbas's statements concerning the issue of the refugees show that any agreement that Abbas reaches with Israel under U.S. pressure will not signal the end of the conflict with Israel. They also show that millions of Palestinians continue to believe that one day they will be allowed to move to Israel, regardless of whether a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem or not.