Monday,19 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Monday,19 November, 2018
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Abbas statements spark ire

The backlash against Mahmoud Abbas is growing after he told Israeli television that he would not invoke the right of return, writes Saleh Al-Naami

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Rehab was upset when her six-year-old daughter Arwa asked her as soon as she came home about the ancestral village that the Israeli army expelled her family from in 1948. Rehab quickly overcame her emotions and responded that the Zionists displaced the family from Beer Sabae (Beersheba) in south Palestine, with five members of her family killed by Zionist militias.
First-grader Arwa, who lives in Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp in the centre of the Gaza Strip, was not the only one in her class who quickly went home to learn about the village her family originally came from before the Israeli army chased them out in 1948. Most elementary school children in the Gaza Strip did the same thing.
Thus, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Israeli Channel Two he is willing to surrender his right to return to his ancestral town of Safad, it came as an immense shock to Palestinians. In response, a campaign was launched to educate Palestinian students about the importance of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, with the aim of encouraging students to learn about their ancestral hometowns.
While Abbas has often taken missteps that upset the Palestinian public, the reaction to his statements this time was overwhelming. Even attempts by Palestinian Authority (PA) officials to explain these statements and prove that Abbas did not abandon the right of return were unsuccessful.
The anger of the Palestinian people was genuine and intense, and commentary on his statements dominated the Palestinian street. Raba Semha, 75, lives in Al-Nosayrat Refugee Camp in the centre of the Gaza Strip and was expelled from her hometown of Beer Sabae when she was 11 years old. “I have a right to return to my land that I was chased out of by Zionist militias,” Semha told Al-Ahram Weekly. “How can I forget my homeland? How can Jews coming from Europe and Russia claim rights to the land we have lived on for hundreds of years?” She added angrily: “Abbas does not and will not represent me; history will condemn him as it has many traitors.”
Essam, 25, whose grandparents were driven out of Askalan in 1948 by Zionist militias, said his family still holds on to the key to the family home and documents that prove their ownership of large areas of land surrounding the town where Zionists built a Jewish town on its ruins. “Perhaps Abbas should be thanked,” Essam said sardonically, “because his statements gave the masses an opportunity to express their determination on the right of return to their land, and on not surrendering their national principles.”
Palestinians were also upset that Abbas had promised Israeli public opinion that he would not allow a third Intifada (uprising) to take place as long as he is president. Hassan, a university student from Deir Al-Balah in the centre of Gaza, asked: “Since settlements in the West Bank continue; plans to further Judaise Jerusalem escalate; suppression and harassment by settlers against us continue; and Israel refuses to meet the requirements for a political settlement of the conflict, then how are Palestinians not expected to resist this reality?”
Abbas’s statements triggered an unprecedented move of activists in Fatah, Abbas’s faction, demonstrating against him, declaring that he does not represent them and demanding he be held accountable. There were several marches on the streets of a number of towns and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip protesting the president’s statements. Demonstrators set fire to Abbas picture and chanted “traitor” and demanded he apologise to the Palestinian people. Protesters raised banners declaring “I am Palestinian and Abbas does not represent me” and “No one authorised you to surrender, oh president of compromise” and “Fatah must declare its position regarding the statements of its leader” and “Mahmoud Abbas: 21st century Balfour”.
Meanwhile social networks, especially Facebook, were confrontational against Abbas with many pages created to demand he be stripped of his powers and put on trial. As for Palestinian groups, factions in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), except for Fatah, criticised Abbas’s statements and viewed them as surrendering the right of return. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine described Abbas’s statements as “contradicting PLO resolutions that uphold the right of return, statehood and self-determination, as well as the right of the Palestinian people to practise all forms of resistance against occupation to reach their national goals.”
Hamas spokesman Salah Al-Bardaweel demanded that Abbas resign, saying he does not represent the Palestinian people. “Anyone who surrenders the right of return must surrender representing or leading the Palestinian people,” asserted Al-Bardaweel. “If he does not do that our people are not obligated to recognise him as their leader, unless he recants his statements and apologises to the people and the resistance.”
He added that by challenging the sentiments of the Palestinians, Arab and Muslim world, and everyone who stands in solidarity with the rights of our people, Abbas has isolated himself and revealed his true colours. “This requires the factions— led by Fatah — to strip him of his legitimacy,” the Hamas leader declared.
Many Fatah leaders refrained from commenting on Abbas’s statements and evaded attempts by the media to gauge their reactions. One young Fatah leader who preferred to remain anonymous accused some of Abbas’s advisers of duping him in talking to Israeli television and making these statements. “Some of Abbas’s advisers felt an interview with the most popular Israeli television channel and making these ‘reassuring’ statements would diminish Israeli anger over Abbas going to the UN to ask for ‘observer status’,” the source told the Weekly.
Abbas also tried to calm angry reactions by saying that he did not mean to surrender the right of return, and accused Palestinian factions and the media of manipulating his statements to attack him. Abbas accused Al-Jazeera news channel and some Palestinian factions of “fishing for trouble” and denied that his statements aimed to appease Israeli public opinion. “All Palestinians approve of a two-state solution and a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders,” stated Abbas. “This was even approved by Hamas and [the Islamic] Jihad.”
He further condemned Hamas’s attack on him, stating: “They are the ones who suggested a state with temporary borders and discussed — and continue to — this with Israel and other parties. This is a proposal made by Sharon and is still being discussed by the Israelis.”
Mustafa Ibrahim, a left-leaning Palestinian writer, described Abbas’s statements as “surrender and an expression of the man’s beliefs and visions that he often stated without shame or consideration of the people’s feelings or right of return. They are merely an expression of his desire to send reassuring messages to Israeli public opinion.”
Ibrahim accused Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, of wanting to drive the Palestinians to despair with such statements.
Abbas’s statements blew up in his face from all directions. The Israeli right accused him of trying to influence the outcome of the Israeli elections that will be held in January. As expected, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was the most insolent, describing Abbas as a “mosquito”, while Israeli cabinet member Yigal Ordan called him a “hypocrite”.
Meanwhile, centre and left parties in Israel not only received Abbas’s statements coolly, but also quickly made more demands. Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party that will contest elections for the first time and is expected to win a substantial number of seats, said that Abbas must realise that in any future political settlement large Jewish settlements would be annexed to Israel.

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