Published November 17, 2014
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas returned to a hero's welcome in the West Bank on Tuesday, making his first public appearance at home since Al-Jazeera published embarrassing documents showing him making broad concessions to Israel in peace talks.
The Arab satellite channel has been releasing what it says are hundreds of internal documents summarizing a decade of peace efforts. In Al-Jazeera's latest revelation late Monday, a document quoted Abbas as acknowledging that the Palestinian dream of returning millions of refugees to Israel is unrealistic — drawing accusations of treason from his Hamas rivals.
Greeted by hundreds of supporters at his headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas vowed to weather the storm over the leaks, which have highlighted the gap between his tough public positions on sensitive issues and the offers he has made to Israel behind closed doors. Opponents have accused him of treason.
"Our trust is first in God and in our people, and in ourselves that we are on the right path to get back our people's rights," Abbas told the crowd, shortly after returning from Egypt.
About 200 to 300 protesters gathered outside the channel's downtown Ramallah office for the second day Tuesday, chanting "Al-Jazeera, you whore," as a cordon of police blocked the crowd from advancing. Some in the crowd burned Al-Jazeera logos they had printed on paper.
The fate of Palestinian refugees is perhaps the most emotionally charged issue for the Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948. Today, the number of refugees — and their descendants — is in the millions, many of them scattered across the Middle East.
The Palestinians have long claimed that all refugees have the "right to return" to lost properties in what is now Israel. Israel rejects a mass resettlement of refugees, saying it would spell the end of the country as a Jewish state.
Documents presented by Al-Jazeera late Monday suggested a different reality. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quoted as telling a U.S. official, David Hale, that the Palestinians offered Israel the return of a "symbolic number" of refugees.
In a separate transcript of a meeting between Abbas and Palestinian officials, the Palestinian president is quoted as saying it would be "illogical" to demand the return of 5 million refugees to Israel.
Palestinian officials have accused Al-Jazeera, and their Qatari benefactors, of launching a smear campaign against Abbas. They say the documents have been misunderstood, distorted and even fabricated, though they have not provided firm evidence. Abbas vowed to fight the "forgery and distortion."
But in the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant group Hamas, Abbas' bitter rival, accused him of treason for compromising on traditional Palestinian demands.
Abbas has led on-and-off peace talks with Israel since becoming president six years ago. Hamas, which wrested control of Gaza from Abbas' forces in 2007, opposes peace with Israel.
Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, urged "masses in the Arab countries and refugees everywhere to voice their words because this case is more serious than anyone could imagine."
The revelations about the refugee issue could be especially damaging to Abbas, while giving a boost to Hamas.
After the initial broadcast on Sunday evening, Abbas aides challenged the authenticity of some of the documents and said quotes were taken out of context, as part of what they described as a smear campaign against the West Bank leadership.
Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, reiterated those allegation Tuesday.
However, Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Abbas, was quoted by Al-Jazeera as saying that the station "according to my information, received all the documents we have that are related to the negotiations."
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City.