Bottom of the bottom
While Arab activists and intellectuals rally to the cause of Palestinian refugees, officialdom in Ramallah denounces their efforts, reports Khaled Amayreh
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) has strongly denounced a recent conference on the plight of Palestinian refugees held in the Syrian capital, Damascus, organised by a coalition of factions and figures dedicated to the right of return, which according to organisers -- amongst them Hamas -- is the heart and soul of the Palestinian problem.
The conference asserted the centrality of the right of return and warned Palestinian, regional and international players that any resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not including the repatriation of millions of uprooted refugees to their original homes and villages in what is now called Israel would be strongly rejected by the Palestinian people.
The PA didn't specifically object to what was said in Damascus, although critics argue that President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides are not sincere about their declared commitment to the right of return. Indeed, Abbas reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on many occasions that the Palestinians would accept any "just and agreed upon resolution" of the refugee issue. This is a clear departure from the erstwhile Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) position that resolution of the refugee plight would have to be pursuant UN Resolution 194, which calls for both repatriation and indemnification.
Fatah spokesmen in Ramallah criticised the Syrian government for hosting the conference in the first place, saying Syria shouldn't allow "coup mongers" (an allusion to Hamas) to attack the PLO from Damascus. They also lambasted two prominent Fatah leaders, Farouk Al-Qaddumi and Hani Al-Hassan, for attending. Within the Fatah hierarchy, Al-Qaddumi and Al-Hassan rank second and third respectively after PA President Abbas. However, because of their opposition to the "Oslo process", and more recently to "excessive collaboration between the PA and Israel", the Ramallah-based leadership has marginalised each.
Al-Qaddumi said any resolution of the conflict with Israel ignoring or circumventing the right of return would be null and void. "There will be no solution to the Palestinian issue without the return of the refugees," he said. Al-Qaddumi also attacked the Oslo Accords, saying that Palestinian factions ought to unite behind the resistance and the national constants of the Palestinian people." But "resistance" is probably the last word the Ramallah leadership would want to hear. Indeed, the PA had undertaken to liquidate pockets of military resistance to the Israeli occupation, at least in the West Bank.
Hakam Balawi, a member of Fatah's Executive Committee, lambasted Al-Qaddumi for giving a speech at the Damascus conference. "His speech didn't represent the PLO or Fatah. His participation in the conference underscored his willingness to join forces that are interested in weakening Fatah," Balawi said in printed statement e-mailed to journalists and reported by pro-Fatah news agencies. Balawi suggested that only the PLO had the right to make policy pronouncements.
A similar statement by Balawi targeted Al-Hassan, also a high-ranking member of Fatah's Executive Committee.
Irked by the ostensible success of the Damascus conference, PLO figures held a one-day "mini conference" on the refugee issue in Ramallah earlier this week, with several speakers stressing the centrality of the right of return. Participants included junior representatives of Fatah as well as leading figures from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and smaller PLO factions.
One leftist participant, who didn't want to be identified by name, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "Fatah wanted to utilise the PLO against Hamas while some other PLO factions wanted Fatah to move away from the American-Israeli axis and re-embrace the traditional Palestinian national constants as well as reassert its commitment to the right of return."
Leading Palestinian officials, including Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad didn't attend.
Fatah's dismay at the Damascus conference lies mainly in the conference's "untimely" assertion of the right of return. The Fatah leadership in Ramallah realises that the right of return is an extremely contentious issue within the PLO, and even within Fatah itself, which could eventually cause serious internal divisions. Fatah is particularly concerned that Hamas, its main rival, stands to gain from any such divisions.
In truth, the PA leadership is facing a real problem reconciling its public pronouncements with regard to the right of return and its commitments under the peace process with Israel. In private conversations, PA and PLO figures, such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, acknowledge that the repatriation of millions of Palestinian refugees to their homeland in what is now called Israel is an unrealistic goal bordering on fantasy.
In 2003, Abed Rabbo, probably acting on instructions from late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, signed the so-called "Geneva Accord" with former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Belin. The document effectively scrapped the right of return. Abed Rabbo then adopted the Israeli view, namely that the Palestinians couldn't expect to have two states -- a would- be Palestinian state on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and an Israel that would have a Palestinian majority if the refugees were to be allowed back to their former homes and villages.
Now, however, Abed Rabbo and like-minded PLO figures are generally keeping their mouths shut on the issue of the refugees and the right of return. They know that the vast majority of Palestinians now look upon their views as not only too dovish but outright treasonous.
According to Hani Al-Masri, a prominent political analyst from Nablus, Abbas and Abed Rabbo and their allies realise that this is not the time to make "audacious utterances" about the right of return in the absence of substantive progress on other issues of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. "The Israelis are expanding the settlements on a daily basis, they are Judaicising what is left of Jerusalem, and they are narrowing Palestinian horizons in every conceivable manner. Under these circumstances, it would disastrous, even a political suicide, for Abbas to declare openly that he would be willing to compromise on the right of return."
Asked if he thought that the PA was lying to the Palestinian people with regard to its commitment to the refugee cause, Al-Masri said: "Of course they are not telling the truth. They know deep in their heart that the peace process and the international atmosphere, and above all reality on the ground, won't allow them to demand the full or even partial repatriation of the refugees to their original homes in Israel."
Al-Masri said Abbas had already voiced willingness to scrap the bulk of the right of return. "The official PA position on the right of return has deteriorated to the bottom of the bottom. Right now, they are saying they would accept a 'just and agreed-upon resolution' of the refugee problem. In other words, Israel would have the final say," Al-Masri said.
Palestinian intellectual and former Israeli Knesset member Azmi Bishara alluded to the inherent contradiction between PA pronouncements regarding the right of return and its actual policies. "If the right of return is negotiable and if continued, open-ended negotiation with Israel is the sole Palestinian strategy towards ending the conflict, this means that the PA will be willing to abandon the right of return."
Bishara, who was addressing a Ramallah conference, via teleconference from Amman, said the main purpose of the current peace process was to enable the PA to find Arab cover for the effective liquidation of the right of return and other prospective concessions the PA would be forced to make. "Then Abbas would be able to claim that all the Arabs are standing behind him."