In the Palestinian ethos, the right of return – referring to the return of the 1948 refugees to their homes and villages – is considered a sacred right that must never be waived. It is one of the most important principles of Palestinian society and is among the stumbling blocks on the path to reconciliation and a peace agreement.
The Palestinian leadership has called for the return of more than half of the five million refugees in question - who currently reside in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon – to their former homes in Israel, in accordance with a UN resolution from 1948 which recognized their right to return to their homes or seek compensation.
The Palestinian Authority's leadership, particularly after Yasser Arafat's death, has gradually come to terms with the notion that the Palestinians will not be able to realize the right of return. Mahmoud Abbas courageously told Israel's Channel 2 News that that he did not want to return to his former hometown of Safed and that as far as he is concerned Palestine is the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. In doing so he essentially waived the right of return.
But the general Palestinian public, including the refugees themselves of course, is not willing to give up this right. Waiving this right would mean giving up on the dream of a "Greater Palestine." The Palestinians see their homeland as the village, the home, the lemon and olive trees. A homeland confined to the Palestinian Authority's territories would not suffice. They want to return to their original homes and villages from 1948.
This gap between the leadership and the public is huge, but Abbas' statement may ignite a debate and start a process that will lead to the acceptance of reality. It may turn the right of return into a dream that will never be realized.
Bu the Palestinian public is not ready for this yet –especially not the refugees. Hamas rejected Abbas' remarks. According to Islam, the Gaza's rulers claim, the Palestinians are forbidden from ceding even one inch of the homeland – certainly not to the Jews.