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SATURDAY, 19 APR 2014
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Interview: Refugees will not be citizens of new state
Ambassador Abdullah with Palestine’s symbolic U.N. seat in the foreground. (Photo by Mahmoud Kheir, The Daily Star)
Ambassador Abdullah with Palestine’s symbolic U.N. seat in the foreground. (Photo by Mahmoud Kheir, The Daily Star)
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BEIRUT: Palestinian refugees will not become citizens of a new Palestinian state, according to Palestine’s ambassador to Lebanon.

From behind a desk topped by a miniature model of Palestine’s hoped-for blue United Nations chair, Ambassador Abdullah Abdullah spoke to The Daily Star Wednesday about Palestine’s upcoming bid for U.N. statehood.

The ambassador unequivocally says that Palestinian refugees would not become citizens of the sought for U.N.-recognized Palestinian state, an issue that has been much discussed. “They are Palestinians, that’s their identity,” he says. “But … they are not automatically citizens.”

This would not only apply to refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan or the other 132 countries where Abdullah says Palestinians reside. Abdullah said that “even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [Palestinian] state, they are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens.”

Abdullah said that the new Palestinian state would “absolutely not” be issuing Palestinian passports to refugees.

Neither this definitional status nor U.N. statehood, Abdullah says, would affect the eventual return of refugees to Palestine. “How the issue of the right of return will be solved I don’t know, it’s too early [to say], but it is a sacred right that has to be dealt with and solved [with] the acceptance of all.” He says statehood “will never affect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”

The right of return that Abdullah says is to be negotiated would not only apply to those Palestinians whose origins are within the 1967 borders of the state, he adds. “The state is the 1967 borders, but the refugees are not only from the 1967 borders. The refugees are from all over Palestine. When we have a state accepted as a member of the United Nations, this is not the end of the conflict. This is not a solution to the conflict. This is only a new framework that will change the rules of the game.”

The Palestinian Liberation Organization would remain responsible for refugees, and Abdullah says that UNRWA would continue its work as usual.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration recently pledged to veto statehood in the Security Council, which would leave the Palestinians the option of seeking a General Assembly resolution. If this happens, Abdullah says, 129 countries have committed to positive votes.

The United States has of late been taking steps to dissuade the Palestinians from taking their bid to the U.N., sending negotiators to meet with Palestinian officials. The ambassador says these talks have not been fruitful.

“They won’t offer us anything … that saves the peace process,” he says. “They would offer us nothing except to say that they will cut financial aid, and other such threats. Dignity is much more important than a loaf of bread.”

The last minute threats Abdullah refers to include a bill proposed by the chair of the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which would cut U.S. funding to any U.N. body that recognizes the Palestinian statehood.

Abdullah says now is the time to seek statehood because the peace process has been stalled for around a year, and rattles off the dates of locations of failed meetings with the Israelis last September.

“These meetings did not bring us one iota closer to achieving the goal the negotiations were resumed to achieve.” He says that there are now new obstacles, including settlement building “with some haste” and Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state or a national home for the Jewish people.

Abdullah says the Palestinians effectively have no choice but to go to the U.N. With talks at an impasse, he says, “nothing was left for us to protect the international consensus of the two-state solution.”

A U.S. veto in the Security Council, Abdullah says, would only harm the great power. “The United States is propagating that it is the champion of freedom and democracy around the world, and if it denies the Palestinians the right to be free, to be democratic, and to live in dignity, it is not a good sign for the U.S. It leaves a dark stain … It’s not good for America,” he says. “America deserves better.”

He says the U.S. should be mindful of “signals in the region … that are ringing a bell.” He mentions the tension between Turkey and Israel and the recent eruption of protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

“If wrong policies are adopted in the U.S., it will only give a freer hand to extremism. It only empowers negative forces. And this will make it more difficult and complicated for rational forces to prevail.”

Despite clear signs of opposition from the U.S., Abdullah says anything could happen next week, when the U.N.’s General Assembly session opens and the issue of Palestinian statehood will be debated.

“When we go [to the United Nations],” he says, “we [will not] bet on anything.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 15, 2011, on page 2.
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