Abbas 'refugee' comments wow Israel, enrage Gaza

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Israeli President Shimon Peres on Saturday saluted as "courageous" remarks by Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas widely seen as relinquishing Palestinian refugees' right to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.

"Abu Mazen's courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace," Peres said in a statement, using the name by which the Palestinian president is informally known in Arabic.

But the Abbas comments sent thousands of Palestinians onto the streets in protest in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip where they burned his picture and chanted "Out, Out, Abu Mazen."

In an interview broadcast on Friday night by Israeli commercial TV station Channel 2, Abbas said that he had no intention of trying to regain his childhood home in the northern town of Safed in Galilee, today located inside Israel.

"I want to see Safed," he said in English. "It's my right to see it but not to live there."

In a direct pitch to Israeli viewers aimed at assuaging their concerns ahead of a Palestinian bid to seek upgraded UN status, he reiterated his acceptance of the Israeli state within the borders that preceded its occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day war.

"Palestine for me now is '67 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital," Abbas told Channel 2.

"This is Palestine for me. I am a refugee, I am living in Ramallah, I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts is Israel," he said.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina insisted that the interview did not represent a policy shift and said that giving up the right of return would create "a catastrophe for the Palestinian generations to come."

"The right of return is among the issues that are still pending in the negotiations with Israel," he said in a statement. "A television interview does not mean negotiations and the aim of the interview was to influence Israeli opinion."

Abbas was born in Safed in 1935 in what was then British-ruled Palestine. With the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, he fled into exile along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs.

"These are significant words," Peres said. "We must all treat them with the most respect.

"These positions stand exactly in line with those of Israel and with the clear majority of the population, which supports the solution of two states for two peoples. This is a brave and important public declaration."

Abbas also pledged that as long as he remains in his post there would be no armed resistance to Israeli occupation on the part of his western-backed Palestinian Authority.

"As far as I am here, in this office, there will be no third armed intifada, ever. We don't want to use terror, we don't want to use weapons, we want to use diplomacy."

In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, thousands rallied in protests against Abbas's remarks, in demonstrations called by the militant Islamic group which has said that it will never recognise Israel.

In Jabaliya refugee camp, the enclave's largest, about 3,000 people chanting "Out, out, Abu Mazen!" marched and burned his picture.

Thousands more protested in Gaza City and the southern town of Khan Yunes.

Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya on Friday told worshippers after midday prayers that Abbas "has no right to give up refugee rights. He does not speak in the name of the refugees."