Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has stood by his demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze in an address to tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered to honour the late Yasser Arafat.
The fifth anniversary of the revered leader’s death finds Palestinians more divided than ever and his successor, Abbas, pondering resignation because of stalled US-led peace efforts that have failed to create a Palestinian state.
Abbas insisted the Palestinians remain committed to a peaceful solution to the conflict, but he accused Israel of hindering peace efforts by expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem.
“We see Israel confiscating land, building settlements and Judaising Jerusalem with unprecedented speed … and then they ask that we return to negotiations,” Abbas told the huge crowd.
“The return to negotiations depends on Israel adhering to the terms of reference of peace and that means halting all settlements, including natural growth and Jerusalem.
“It is our right to demand the removal of all settlements from our land because they are illegal,” he added.
The crowd, waving Palestinian flags and yellow banners of Abbas’s Fatah party, crammed into the government compound to honour Arafat, who catapulted the Palestinian cause on to the world stage and led them through nearly four decades of armed struggle and sputtering peace talks.
A senior Palestinian security official estimated that tens of thousands of people had gathered in and around the Muqataa presidential compound, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and the site of Arafat’s mausoleum.
No rallies were held in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas drove out Fatah loyalists in 2007. Dozens of students at the Fatah-linked Al-Azhar University were arrested for wearing Arafat’s signature black-and-white chequered keffiyeh and carrying pictures of him, family members said.
In recent days, aides have said Abbas might resign as president because of his frustrations with the stalled peace efforts, in a move that could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA) established by Arafat during the Oslo peace process in the 1990s.
“The moment of truth has come and we have to be frank with the Palestinian people that we have not been able to reach a two-state solution through 18 years of negotiation,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
“We have become convinced that Israel does not want a Palestinian state on lands it occupied in 1967,” he said, referring to Gaza and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, all of which Israel captured in the Six Day War.
Abbas has already said he will not seek re-election in a vote he has called for January that has been rejected by Hamas, and his early resignation would throw the divided Palestinians into new legal and political limbo.
Aides have indicated that if Abbas steps down and the PA collapses, this would drive the last nail in the coffin of the defunct Oslo process and leave nearly four million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank again dependent on Israel for basic services.
The Palestinians demand for a complete freeze of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem was initially backed by Washington.
But Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to freeze settlements and, in recent weeks, Washington has backed down, calling on both sides to return to the negotiating table without preconditions.
The presence of nearly a half million Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem has long been seen by the Palestinians as a major obstacle to the establishment of a viable independent state.
Arafat, who died aged 75 in a French hospital on November 11, 2004, remains a beloved symbol of unity and resistance to Israel for the Palestinians, who have been riven by factional fighting in recent years.