World Bulletin/News Desk
The Palestinian president said he has rejected a conditional Israeli offer to let Palestinian refugees in war-torn Syria resettle in the West Bank and Gaza, charging it would compromise their claims to return to lost homes in Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas tried to get Israel to let 150,000 Palestinians fleeing war in Syria resettle in the West Bank, but dropped the request after the Jewish state demanded they first give up their right of return, he said.
Syria is home to around 500,000 Palestinian refugees, some of whom have been fleeing the country because of civil war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and fighters seeking to topple his government.
Israel has said it has no plans to allow them to enter the West Bank, which it has occupied since 1967.
"I asked the Secretary General of the United Nations, I told him to ask our neighbours to let us be bring them to Palestine. Four days later the surprise answer came to me, (the Israelis) agree," Abbas told Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen television in an interview broadcast on Friday.
"They agree on one condition...that each one of the refugees renounce their right of return. We said, forget it," Abbas said.
Abbas also told a group of Egyptian journalists in Cairo late Wednesday that Ban contacted Israel on his behalf.
Abbas said Ban was told Israel "agreed to the return of those refugees to Gaza and the West Bank, but on condition that each refugee ... sign a statement that he doesn't have the right of return (to Israel)."
"So we rejected that and said it's better they die in Syria than give up their right of return," Abbas told the group. Some of his comments were published Thursday by the Palestinian news website Sama.
The Israeli condition linked to the resettlement offer made it impossible for Abbas to accept, said Ahmed Hanoun, an official in the refugee department of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group Abbas heads.
"I think the Israelis were not serious about this offer," said Hanoun. "If they were, they would have endorsed the return of these people who live in misery, and not to blackmail them to relinquish their legal rights."
Around 5 million Palestinian refugees live in U.N.-run camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and Syria, after they or their ancestors fled or were forced from homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war of Israel's founding.
Palestinians believe U.N. General Assembly resolutions enshrine a right for these refugees to return to their original lands, an idea consistently rejected by Israel.
Their fate has been one of the thorniest sticking points throughout the decades.
Twenty thousand Palestinian refugees have fled from Syria into neighbouring Lebanon, joining 400,000 Palestinians living in hard-scrabble ghettos in that small nation.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied it would let Palestinians from Syria into the West Bank. Israeli government representatives told Reuters they had no information on such talks.
Abbas, who himself fled his original hometown in Northern Israel, courted domestic controversy last year when he told an Israeli news channel that he had no desire to return.
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"Gaps remain between the parties, so his focus is on finding a formula that both sides can accept," said the U.S. official