Palestinian refugees applaud leaders on 'right of return' pledge
Thu Dec 9,12:43 PM ET
RASHIDIYEH, Lebanon (AFP) - Several thousand refugees treated new PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas and Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei to a warm welcome and applauded a promise not to forget their right to return to former homes in what is now Israel.
The leaders arrived in Beirut on Wednesday on a two-day official visit to Lebanon -- the first in more than two decades by the Palestinian leadership.
After a welcome from the chief of late Yasser Arafat (news - web sites)'s mainstream Fatah (news - web sites) movement in Lebanon, Sultan Abul Aynan, Abbas and Qorei joined the crowd in reciting a verse from the Koran in memory of the veteran Palestinian leader.
The podium was festooned with Palestinian and Fatah flags. At its foot, a poster of Jerusalem and Arafat said: "Welcome Abu Mazen, Palestinian Authority (news - web sites) presidential candidate, in the shadow of our martyr, Abu Ammar (Arafat)".
Abbas -- also known as Abu Mazen -- is Fatah's candidate in the January 9 election to find a successor to Arafat, who died on November 11.
Another giant poster showed Arafat surrounded by pictures of other Palestinian leaders who have died in combat or been assassinated by Israel.
Addressing the crowd, many of whom fled or were forced from their homes when the Jewish state was created in 1948, Qorei said the leadership would "never abandon" their right to return.
"We wait for the moment of return to the fatherland in conformity with (UN Security Council) Resolution 194," which was adopted in 1948 and which guarantees the right of return.
That issue has long been one of the sticking points in efforts to arrive at a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
About 400,000 Palestinian refugees are registered in Lebanon. More than half live in 12 refugee camps, where many Lebanese fear their permanent settlement would upset a delicate confessional and political balance in the country.
Abbas, suffering from a cold and dressed in a heavy overcoat, spoke of the void left by Arafat's death, which he said "we will never be able to fill."
"We promised to apply his principles. May he rest in peace. We will follow the path," he said to heavy applause.
The visit is the first by top Palestinians since the late Yasser Arafat was forced out of Lebanon a year after the 1982 Israeli invasion.
They had arrived here after a fence-mending trip to Syria, which is the effective powerbroker in its smaller neighbor.
The visit was meant to pave the ground for improved ties with Lebanon, still marked by the devastating effects of the 1975-1990 civil war, partly sparked by the Palestinian armed presence.
Lebanon and Syria had accused Arafat of breaking Arab ranks by signing separate peace accords with Israel in 1993.
Qorei said that the talks, "both in Damascus and in Beirut were filled with understanding."
In particular, he said "we laid the groundwork for future relations and obtained promises to ease life in the camps ... You are going to notice an improvement in the days and and weeks to come."
On the way to Rashidiyeh, the Palestinian leaders stopped off in Sidon, the site of a cemetery where the bodies of 350 Lebanese and Palestinians killed in a 1982 Israeli bombardment are buried.
They left Lebanon later, headed for Amman.