Abbas defiant as political attacks mount

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 25 2011 2:35 p.m. MST

A Palestinian Fatah supporter tears off the sign of Al-Jazeera as others gather outside the TV channel's office during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011. President Mahmoud Abbas has returned to a hero's welcome and was greeted by hundreds of supporters in the West Bank, his first public appearance since Al-Jazeera published documents showing him making broad concessions to Israel in peace talks.

Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Revelations that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides were willing to scale back long-standing demands for the return of millions of Palestinian refugees in talks with Israel brought accusations of treason from his Hamas rivals Tuesday.

The apparent concession, never stated publicly, could prove to be the most politically damaging disclosure yet from documents leaked to the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera. The channel has been releasing secrets from a decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in nightly broadcasts this week, based on what it said are more than 1,600 transcripts and notes.

The Western-backed Abbas dismissed Al-Jazeera's broadcasts on Tuesday as "soap operas" and told hundreds of supporters at a carefully orchestrated rally in the West Bank that he won't compromise on Palestinian rights.

Abbas and members of his inner circle have drawn criticism for their response, which has focused on accusing Al-Jazeera of distortion and smear tactics instead of engaging the substance of the leaks.

In Tuesday's segment, the station said documents illustrate a high level of coordination between Abbas' security forces and Israel's military against a joint enemy, Hamas. The Islamic militants wrested control of Gaza from Abbas by force in 2007.

In one May 2008 document, a Palestinian security chief asks a senior Israeli military official for more tear gas canisters to help put down West Bank protests and avoid using live fire. The Israeli urged his Palestinian counterpart to do more to stem Hamas' influence in Palestinian society, and was told the matter should be dealt with but that it's not the job of Palestinian troops.

Al-Jazeera also quotes from a 2005 meeting in which Israel's defense minister at the time asked a Palestinian security chief to kill a Gaza militant and was told that "we will look into it." The militant was later killed in an Israeli airstrike.

The discrepancy between public and private positions, however, appears to have been widest on the refugee issue.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948. Today, refugees and their descendants number several million, many scattered across the Middle East.

Israel rejects a mass resettlement, saying it would spell the end of the country as a Jewish state. The traditional Palestinian demand is that Israel recognize the refugees' "right of return" to Israel, with details left up to negotiations. Documents presented by Al-Jazeera, however, suggested Abbas and other negotiators were willing to accept an Israeli proposal for only a nominal return.

According to the leaked documents, the Palestinian leader said in a 2009 meeting with Palestinian negotiators that it is "illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million or indeed 1 million." Such a demand, he said, "would mean the end of Israel." However, Israel's offer to take 5,000 is unacceptably low, he said.

The documents also say chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told a U.S. official in January 2010 that a Palestinian position paper given to Israel includes the return of a "symbolic number" of refugees.

Abbas aide Nabil Shaath told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the Palestinians never proposed a specific number, and that all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora, would be able to vote on any future deal in a referendum.

Abbas' political rivals seized the opportunity for attack. Hamas accused him of treason. At a protest Tuesday, Khalil al-Haya, a Hamas political leader, told the crowd that the compromises "breached all the principles, standards and justifications of the Palestinian people."

In Jordan, home to the bulk of the refugees, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood urged the government Tuesday to reconsider its relations with Abbas' Palestinian Authority over the refugee issue.

In Gaza's Shati refugee camp, some descendants of refugees said they would fight any deal that did not include all of them. "My enemies live a carefree life, and I'm stuck in a refugee camp where people live on top of each other," said Hassan Sabbah, 28, who lost his legs in an Israeli airstrike.

The revelations came four months after negotiations between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ran aground shortly after they began, with little hope of resumption. Abbas says he won't go back without a full Israeli settlement freeze, which Netanyahu refuses to contemplate.

Analysts said the political damage to Abbas among Palestinians was still limited but could grow.

Ibrahim Ahmed, a lecturer on political history at Al Quds University in Gaza, called the refugee issue "a ticking bomb."

"The Palestinian cause is the problem of refugees, and the solution should bring a real answer to this," he said. "The Palestinian Authority's mistake was that it was never honest with the people."

Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Diaa Hadid in Gaza's Shati refugee camp contributed to this report.

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