Photo Credit: Issam Rimawi / Flash 90
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas speaking in Ramallah.

May 15 marked the United Nation’s latest travesty as it put “Nakba Day” on its official annual calendar. “Nakba” translates as “catastrophe” in Arabic. This international body disingenuously declared to the world that “the Nakba is a moment in time in 1948” — which just so happened to coincide precisely with the establishment of the State of Israel.

The icing on the anti-Israel cake of this event, however, was the hour-long address to the UN by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Seizing the floor for double his scheduled speaking time, he referred to Israel’s founding, (or “Nakba,” to Palestinians) as a “tragedy [that] constitutes a scar on humanity.”


Both the UN’s and Abbas’s predictably anti-Israel rhetoric aside (and comparing Israel to Nazis is quite an aside), the most outrageous statement at the event was Abbas’s ultimatum that Israel must accept the Palestinians’ “right of return” or be ousted from UN membership.

“I’m a refugee, a Palestinian refugee,” Abbas stated. “I want to return to my town. I cannot live in Paris or New York. I want Safed [a city in northern Israel]. I want it.”

The “right of return” is not actually a “right,” especially if you are the party who started the war and then lost it, as took place in 1948.

JordanianEgyptianSyrianLebaneseIraqi and Saudi troops invaded subsequent to the termination of Britain’s Mandate for Palestine, the withdrawal of British soldiers, and the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. The Arab invasion was denounced by the United States, the Soviet Union, and UN secretary-general Trygve Lie. The Arab states proclaimed their aim of a single “United State of Palestine” in place of the establishment two states: Israel and an Arab state, as envisioned in the UN Partition Plan.

The “right of return” is, rather, a demand: that all the Palestinians who fled their homes during the war of 1948 – and all their descendants – be allowed to return to what is currently the State of Israel.

Thousands of wealthy Arabs left their homes in anticipation of a war, thousands more responded to Arab leaders’ calls to get out of the way of the advancing Arab armies. A handful were expelled, but most simply fled to avoid being caught in the crossfire as the Arabs waged war in response to the establishment of Israel.

Despite Israel’s previous insistence that the onus of displacement reparations should be upon the surrounding Arab states that initiated the war against the newly declared UN-approved State of Israel, an impoverished Israel took in about 850,000 Jews who were expelled from or forced to flee Arab states at the time.

Since then, Israel has made attempts, in the name of peace, to allow Palestinians a limited “right of return” as well as significant offers of monetary compensation. All overtures, however, were rejected by the Palestinians.

Abbas himself has demonstrated some ambivalence in his stance about the “right of return.” According to an official Palestinian Authority statement in 2008:

“President [Abbas] made it clear that we are determined in every word and phrase on the right of refugees to return which is a sacred right, and never be delayed or postponed.”

Apparently, Abbas came to accept some of those words and phrases over the next four years. In a 2012 televised interview, with Israel’s Channel 2 news, Abbas claimed, “I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah.” Regarding his birthplace in Safed, he continued, “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there….”

Speaking as the representative of the Palestinian people, these statements were perceived as a dramatic shift in Palestinian policy. Israeli government officials lauded Abbas’s statements. Israel’s then President Shimon Peres responded:

“These are significant words…These positions stand exactly in line with those of Israel … 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, and not in the territory of the state of Israel… [His] courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace.”

Many Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speculated that Abbas’s words were more of a placating measure, a subterfuge, rather than an actual offer to backtrack on the demand of the “right of return.”

A Reuter’s article observed:

“Abbas [had] defied Israel and the United States by planning to ask the UN General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinians to a non-member state…. Abbas has promised an immediate return to peace talks after the UN vote… The televised remarks… also appeared aimed at influencing Israelis ahead of their… election.”

“Like any good politician,” a Saudi commentator remarked, “Abbas is trying to get on his opponent’s good side….[but] There is a limit to how far Abbas should go to appease Israel.”

Among Palestinians, the response was a worldwide uproar. Posters of Abbas were burned, Hamas screamed, and, according to Electronic Intifada, an extensive letter to Abbas, signed by 78 Palestinian organizations, contained a semi-veiled death threat.

Veteran Israeli-Palestinian affairs expert Roni Shaked optimistically observed:

“This gap between the leadership and the public is huge, but Abbas’s statement may ignite a debate and start a process that will lead to the acceptance of reality.”

A 2012 Reuter’s report claimed:

“… secret Palestinian memoranda leaked to the media last year showed that Abbas had, during talks with the previous, centrist Israeli government, been willing to concede on some core demands – including…accepting a cap on refugees admitted to Israel.”

In his speech this month at the UN, however, Abbas proved that he has apparently been lying all these years about any readiness to relinquish the “right of return.” By stating that he wants to return to his hometown of Safed, Abbas demonstrated that his real intention is to flood Israel with millions of Palestinians with the hope of turning it into another Arab state. It has now become clear that when Abbas says he supports the two-state solution, he is actually talking about one Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and another one that would replace Israel.

How many “refugees” are there? According to some estimates, there were approximately 750,000 original Palestinian refugees, although 75 years later, only a small percentage of those are still alive.

Like mounting credit-card interest that keep increasing, the numbers, with each generation, keep going up, making a solution, as time goes on, less and less probable.

The “refugee” numbers have been varied and daunting. The UN posited five million, Abbas claimed six million on many occasions. Others have cited seven million and random Palestinians have fancifully extended them to “tens of millions.”

In Israel, there are currently about seven million Jews and two million Arabs. An influx of untold millions of Palestinians would mean, literally, the end of Israel. This appears to be exactly what Abbas and other Palestinians are hoping to achieve.

In pursuing this hardline push for the “right of return,” Abbas desires a two-state solution: two Palestinian states, one in the West Bank and Gaza, and the other in all of Israel.

Perhaps, though, at the age of 87, he is realizing that the gap between his diplomatic efforts for statehood and the impossible Palestinian dream of re-taking the entirety of Israel is too much to bridge. Abbas has been playing for the long-game, but his time is running out and his people are thoroughly angered and disappointed by his lack of tangible results, either in displacing Israel or in bettering their lives.

An overview by Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, says:

“…despite promising over decades that it would never relinquish the right of return, [Abbas’s] PLO/PA has continually engaged in negotiations on the basis that it would have to do just that, while failing to engage in any meaningful consultation with the refugees themselves on the subject…. the PLO/PA has prioritized the creation of a Palestinian state over addressing the Palestinian right of return – and achieved neither…”

Perhaps, in his UN address, Abbas was seeking a last stand, a hallowed place in the history of his people.

Arsen Ostrovsky, a human rights attorney, noted:

“[Abbas’s speech] was greeted with [a standing ovation with] applause and cheers of ‘Free, Free Palestine’ and ‘From the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea, Palestine will be free.’ These are common slogans used by pro-Palestinian groups and terrorist organizations, including the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as rallying cries calling for Israel’s destruction.”

The call is for taking over all of the land that is currently Israel.

That does not sound like the voice of a peace partner. Instead, these are voices still expressing support for Abbas’s vision of transforming Israel into a Palestinian state.

The core of the “right of return” refugee claim lies in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which states: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so….”

Jonathan Schanzer, writing in 2001, said:

“[T]he phrase ‘at peace with their neighbors’ presents an obstacle to the right of return, since few Palestinians have displayed a willingness to live in harmony with Israelis… This has been made clear by the rocks, Molotov cocktails, sniper volleys and remote-control bombs that have become commonplace….”

This observation was made before Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. We may now update the above list of hostilities to include rocket attacks, stabbings, car-rammings and incendiary balloons.

In the comments section of a video of Abbas’s UN speech, one particular entry translated from its original Arabic here, embodies the reasons for Israel’s reluctance to commit suicide by opening its borders to millions of Palestinians. The comment actually sums up the strategy of Abbas and many Palestinians: Addressing Abbas, the comment reads:

“We, the Palestinian people, Mahmoud Abbas, want all of Palestine… 67 and 48, all the land, water, sky, air… and the Jews do not exist with us…. Let history write your name. You admitted that the negotiations with the Zionists were a mistake and a sin… Mr. President. Safed is home and you want to go back to your country…Palestine has tens of millions of owners of the land, and you have been repeating the same mistake for 20 years. The Palestinian people, are tens of millions. We will return. We will expel them [Jews] and displace them. Even their graves, Mr. President, will not remain under our soil… we will kill them.”

{Reposted from Gatestone Institute}


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Bassam Tawil is a scholar based in the Middle East. This article originally appeared on the Gatestone Institute website (