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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Palestinian refugees say no to peace

Headline: Don't accept two-state solution, refugees tell Abbas

As there is no other solution, that means, "don't accept peace."

Representatives of Palestinian refugees warned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the weekend against surrendering their "right of return" by accepting a two-state solution during next month's planned US-sponsored peace conference in Maryland.

The warning came as former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei, who is better known as Abu Ala, said the Palestinians would not accept a state that did not include Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

He said the Palestinians would boycott the conference unless an agreement was reached with Israel beforehand on all the "fundamental" issues: the status of Jerusalem, the borders of the future Palestinian state and the problem of the refugees.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, is likely to address the diplomatic process at Sunday's weekly cabinet session, where the ministers are expected to hear assessments on the recent talks between Olmert and Abbas.

Abbas said Saturday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams would hold their first meeting on Monday to draft a joint statement on principles for future peace talks ahead of the planned conference in Annapolis.

In a letter to Abbas, Salman Abu Sitta, a prominent spokesman for Palestinian refugees, wrote: "We are aware of the pressure you are facing to abandon the Palestinian position and endorse Israel's vision. But what has drawn our attention more than anything else is Israel's attempt to redefine the idea of the two-state solution. Israel now wants mutual recognition - Israel as the national homeland of the Jews and, on what's left of the land, Palestine as the national homeland of the Palestinians."

Abu Sitta described the Israeli formula as "extremely dangerous," saying it should be rejected by all Arabs. He said accepting this formula would be tantamount to abandoning the Arab right to Palestine and accepting the Jews' ostensible historical and biblical rights to the land.

In addition, Abu Sitta argued, the Israeli stance abolishes the right of return for Palestinians on two levels: recognition of this right and its fulfillment.

"This would constitute a historic burden; no Palestinian could bear its consequences in front of his people and history," he cautioned. He said it was inconceivable that the Palestinians would abandon the right of return after decades of fighting.

Representatives of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon also appealed to Abbas not to relinquish the right of return. In letters to Abbas, they criticized Abbas's promise to hold a referendum on any deal he reaches with Israel. "Since when are our rights a disputed matter?" they asked. They said such a referendum would be meaningless because it would be held only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Qurei was recently appointed head of the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel. In a series of interviews with Arab newspapers over the weekend, he said the Palestinians were hoping to strike a deal with Israel within five to six months.

"There must be a clear timetable outlining when the negotiations begin and when they are supposed to end," Qurei said. "Otherwise, the issue will remain open forever. We can reach an agreement quickly provided that there is a serious intention [on the part of Israel]."

Qurei added that the document he and his colleagues were hoping to draft with their Israeli counterparts before the conference would form the basis for future negotiations on a final settlement. "What's important is the content of the document," he said. "If it's going to be an unclear document, then we don't need it."

Qurei said the document must include an Israeli pledge to return to the pre-1967 borders. However, he did not rule out the possibility that the Palestinians would agree to "limited border amendments."

Asked how the Palestinians would react if an agreement on the core issues was not achieved in the coming weeks, he said: "Then this would not be a good situation. We will be forced to look into other options - including whether or not we would attend the conference."

The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment on Qurei's statements.

On the refugees, Rami Khouri, a prominent Palestinian-Jordanian editor, wrote in Lebanon's English-language Daily Star: "The hardest issue to resolve is the status and rights of Palestinian refugees, of whom there are now 4.5 million living outside Palestine (they were 750,000 when they first became refugees in 1948). All other contentious matters - land, sovereignty, recognition, settlements, water, security, Jerusalem - now appear resolvable, given the years of negotiations that have taken place by the concerned parties. The refugee issue, however, remains both intractable and existential for both sides."

Khouri said Abbas was dangerously close to being seen by many in the Arab world as a hapless American-Israeli puppet; his political party, Fatah, has been largely discredited as a corrupt, bloated and inefficient burden on society, and no longer represents majority Palestinian thinking; and the absence of Hamas from the Annapolis meeting would render the Palestinian delegation's credentials "rather thin."

"There is one way that Abbas can overcome these constraints, which recalls a major weakness that contributed to the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000: He should consult widely, deeply and sincerely with ordinary and politically active Palestinians throughout the world, in order to be able to attend the Annapolis talks as a credible representative of the Palestinians," Khouri wrote.

Abbas said Friday that he expected at least 36 nations to attend the conference, including 12 Arab states, another three Muslim nations, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the G-8.

"We hope that the number will increase to 40 states," Abbas was quoted as telling Palestinian dignitaries from Jerusalem, during a meal breaking the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast.

The remarks were quoted by the Palestinian news agency WAFA and confirmed by a participant.

Abbas did not provide a list of countries expected to attend. The US has not released such a list or set a date for the conference.

In Friday's meeting with Palestinian dignitaries, Abbas told his guests that a solution for Jerusalem would be a key to any peace deal.

"Jerusalem has always been in our hearts, and the hope that we have been looking at," Abbas said. "There is no independent Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital. It is a concern in the coming, difficult days."

Herb Keinon contributed to this report.

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