(MENAFN - Arab News) PALESTINIAN leader Mahmoud Abbas was born in the northern Israeli town of Safed in 1935, and in 1948 fled with his family to Syria. He attended the University of Damascus before moving on to Egypt to study law and eventually receiving his doctorate from Moscow University.
In an interview with Israel Television's Channel 2, Abbas seemed to say that Palestinian refugees like himself will have a "right of return" only to a future Palestinian state and not to Israel.
"I am a refugee but I am living in Ramallah," he said, speaking in English to the Israeli interviewer. "I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. And the other part is Israel."
Then came the sentence that has sparked so much controversy among Palestinians.
"I want to see Safed and it is my right to see it but not to live there," he said.
That sentence was seen as giving up on the "right of return" of all Palestinian refugees to their original homes in Israel. Most Palestinians say that right extends not only to the original 700,000 refugees who were both encouraged to leave their homes in what became Israel, and who fled, but to their descendants as well, who today total an estimated five million and live in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as well as the United States and other countries.
The interview sparked protests in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians burned posters of Abbas.
"This is the first time a Palestinian official said "I have no right" to live in my original home," Nashat Aqtash, a professor of communications at Bir Zeit University said. "He should have said 'something is preventing me' from living there. But if you read the Oslo peace agreements from 1993, it says the right of return is to the Palestinian territories."
The Palestinian insistence on the right of return has always been a sticking point in previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli officials have said that allowing five million refugees to return to homes that no longer exist would make it impossible for Israel to continue to be a Jewish state. Palestinians have said it is a "sacred" right and cannot be compromised.
Abbas himself quickly clarified his remarks.
"What I said about Safed is my personal stance. It means nothing about giving up the right of return," he told the Al-Hayyat newspaper. "No one would give up their right of return. But all those international formulas, especially that of (UN Resolution) 194, speak of a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee issue, and 'agreed-upon' means on the part of Israel."
Some Palestinian analysts agreed that Abbas was simply restating the official Palestinian position.
"This is within the limits of the agreement signed by the PLO so I don't think Abbas did anything wrong," Saleh Abdul-Jawad, a professor of political science at Birzeit University told The Media Line. "I don't think he crossed the red line, but now he's under a lot of pressure from everybody."
In Israel, the interview was widely publicized and analyzed. President Shimon Peres warmly welcomed Abbas's remarks.
"These are significant words," Peres said. "These positions stand exactly in line with those of Israel and with a clear majority of the population, which supports the solution of two states for two peoples. This is a brave and important public declaration in which (Abbas) makes clear that his aim for a state is only within the West Bank and Gaza " His courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace."
Other Israeli officials were less excited by Abbas's comments.
"I saw the interview with Abbas over the weekend," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet. "I heard that he has since rescinded his remarks but this proves how important it is to hold direct negotiations without preconditions."
- This article was written for The Media Line.