Abbas pledges refugees will return to their homes in Israel

By Haaretz Service and Agencies

Haaretz

Tevet 23, 5765

Mahmoud Abbas, the leading candidate in next week's PA chairmansip election, on Monday promised Palestinian refugees they'll be able to return home one day - his most explicit comment yet on an explosive issue that has derailed peace talks in the past.

Abbas was campaigning for a third straight day in Gaza, trying to counter his image as a gray bureaucrat who might not stand up to Israel by appealing to younger, more militant Palestinians with hard-line pronouncements.

Following warm embraces with militant leaders in refugee camps and his pledges that he would stand by the gunmen in their struggle to avoid capture by Israel, Abbas took an uncompromising stance on the refugee issue.

On Monday, addressing a rally in Gaza City, Abbas endorsed the claim that Palestinian refugees and their descendants from the 1948 war have the right to return to their original homes.

"We will never forget the rights of the refugees, and we will never forget their suffering. They will eventually gain their rights, and the day will come when the refugees return home," Abbas told the cheering crowd.

Abbas himself is a refugee from Safed, in northern Israel.

All together, the refugees and their descendants total about 4 million people. Almost unanimously, Israeli Jews reject the claim, warning that resettling so many Arabs would undermine the Jewish nature of the state.

The Israeli government believes Palestinian refugees should be resettled in the Palestinian state that would be created through peace talks or in the places where they have lived for the past six decades.

Israel offers compensation for lost property, and a previous, more moderate government agreed to take in a limited number of refugees on the basis of reunification of families.

However, the actual "right of return" has become a watchword of the Palestinian faith, a promise made by Yasser Arafat to generations of refugees and their families, waiting in refugee camps on Israel's borders for the moment when their dream of return would come true - though many of their villages have been replaced by Israeli towns and cities now, and some of their farmland has turned into shopping malls, suburbs and factories.

Israel won't allow Palestinian candidates to visit Mount
Israel on Monday decided that it will not permit the candidates in the January 9 Palestinian Authority election for chairman to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to campaign.

Israel will, however, allow PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the leading contender in the election, to visit East Jerusalem as part of his campaign for next Sunday's elections.

Abbas' aides said Sunday that he had not yet decided whether he wanted to visit the Temple Mount. "Although the issue has been studied, no decision has been made on this matter," the aides said about a possible visit. Abbas aides said they were considering holding election rallies in a Jerusalem suburb such as A-Ram in north Jerusalem or Abu Dis in the east, or in an East Jerusalem hotel.

In a campaign speech Monday, Abbas vowed never to take up arms against militant groups.

The remarks were the latest in a series of stump speeches in which Abbas, who in the past has criticized the use of bombs and rifles against Israelis, hailed militants as heroes of the uprising.

Israel has demanded that Abbas, if elected, curb and disarm militants. Reining in armed groups is also a key element of the U.S.-backed road map.

Abbas, the front-runner in the January 9 race for Palestinian Authority Chairman, said Monday he was determined to ensure the rule of law prevailed in the Palestinian territories, a message to militant groups that attack Israeli targets. But he said he would achieve that goal through "dialogue and discussion" as he pursued national unity.

"Palestinians taking up arms against each other will not happen," Abbas pledged.

"They are freedom fighters ... and should live a dignified and safe life," said Abbas, whose call for an end to violence in a 4-year-old Palestinian uprising has been rejected by militants whose support he is courting in the January 9 election.

Also Monday, The Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs, Hisham Abdul Razek, petitioned Israel's High Court on Monday against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to deny participation in the elections to 8,000 residents of the territories jailed in Israeli prisons.

Justice Salim Joubran determined the petition will be brought before the High Court this coming Thursday.

The violence-stalled road map, which lays out mutual steps for Israel and the Palestinians toward the creation of a Palestinian state, calls for the PA to begin "operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror, and dismantling of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure".

Palestinian gunmen, including a militant leader on Israel's most-wanted list, hoisted Abbas, the candidate of the mainstream Fatah faction, on their shoulders during a campaign appearance in the West Bank town of Jenin last week.