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Al Jazeera attacked after 'Palestine Papers' leak stokes Arab anger

Palestinians burn a mock Israeli national flag with the word Al Jazeera during a protest outside the television channel's offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 24, 2011.


A Palestinian official on Monday accused Qatar of launching a campaign against President Mahmoud Abbas's administration, saying documents released by Doha-based Al Jazeera television aimed to mislead.

In Ramallah, several dozen Abbas loyalists tried to break into Al Jazeera's office, witnesses said, during a protest against the channel's publication of leaked documents showing the Palestinians offered big concessions to Israel in peace talks.

The documents released on Sunday showed Mr. Abbas's negotiators willing to give substantial ground on important issues at the heart of the decades-old conflict with Israel, such as the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

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"Oh Jazeera, you are spies!" chanted the Abbas loyalists, mainly young men. They set fire to an Israeli flag with "Al Jazeera" written on it, witnesses said.

Mr. Abbas, speaking to journalists in Cairo, accused the television station of intentionally misleading viewers. "We say very clearly, we do not have secrets," he said.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official, said the emir of Qatar had "given a green light" for a campaign against the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. Qatar has close ties to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Al Jazeera is sponsored by Doha, although the government denies it has direct control of the channel.

It was not the first time Mr. Abbas's administration had clashed with Al Jazeera, generally perceived as sympathetic to Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority banned the television channel in the West Bank in 2009 after it broadcast allegations by a senior Palestinian politician that Abbas had participated in a plot to assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Al Jazeera says the documents released on Sunday are the first batch of 1,600 it will disclose on the Middle East peace process.

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Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said "reports" had misrepresented the Palestinians' positions and "statements and facts" had been taken out of context.

In a statement, he said negotiations with Israel had included discussion of some ideas that the Palestinians "could never agree to," adding: "No agreement will be signed without the approval of the Palestinian people" in the form of a national referendum.

"Indeed, our position has been the same for the past 19 years of negotiations: we seek to establish a sovereign and independent Palestinian State along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and to reach a just solution to the refugee issue based on their international legal rights, including those set out in UNGA 194."

Responding to the publication of the documents, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process said media commentary had conveyed "an inaccurate impression."

"I can personally attest to the commitment of the Palestinian leadership to secure the legitimate rights and interests of the Palestinian people, based on international law and UN resolutions," Robert Serry said.

Many of the documents date from the talks Palestinians held with the Israeli administration of Ehud Olmert in 2008. The talks ended in early 2009 when Mr. Olmert was forced from office over corruption allegations.

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Palestinian commentators said many of the ideas outlined in minutes of meetings leaked to Al Jazeera were not new, partly explaining why public reaction among Palestinians appeared muted.

Many ordinary Arabs, many of them angered by their leaders who they feel are too ready to capitulate to U.S. and Israeli demands, still voiced fury about the content of leaks that touch on issues sensitive to many across the Middle East.

"Of course Mahmoud Abbas could have done this because he wants to deepen roots between him and Israel," said Ismail Hussein, an Egyptian bank employee, saying such concessions would turn Palestinians against their president.

Another Egyptian, Salah Hasheesh, said: "If he did this, they are selling themselves cheaply." But he also said the reports may have been concocted to undermine Mr. Abbas.

Equally infuriating to many Palestinians, who want to create a state on land Israel seized in a 1967 war, is the fact that Israel offered nothing in return for the concessions and turned down their offer, saying it did not go far enough.

"The leaks exposed the huge concessions that were made by the Palestinian negotiators, especially in Jerusalem and over the refugee issue," said Ahmad Said Nofal, a politics professor.

"After these leaks I find that it will be difficult now for the Palestinian and Arab public opinion to trust this Palestinian leadership," said Mr. Nofal from Jordan's Yarmouk University.

Ezzedin Choukri-Fishere, a professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo and former Egyptian diplomat, said the Arab public tended to ignore the uncomfortable concessions that any peace settlement needed.

"If there is going to be a Palestinian peace agreement it is not going to fall far from the mark that appears in those leaks," he said pointing to U.S.-sponsored talks, such as those in the Egyptian resort of Taba more than a decade ago.

The fate of East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967 and home to Muslim and Jewish holy sites, is seen by many as an Islamic not just Palestinianissue. The future of Palestinian refugees expelled from land in 1948 also has a broader impact.

"First, Jerusalem is an Islamic issue. Second, the refugees are an Arab issue because the Arab countries have a clear opinion, and want to know what the concessions are going to be, whether they can settle in their country or not, or when they can go back," said Dubai-based Mustafa Alani.

Many Palestinians fled to Arab states after Israel was founded and many of their descendants still live as refugees.

One document quoted Chief Palestinian negotiator Mr. Erekat as telling an Israeli official: "It is no secret that ...we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in history." He used the Hebrew word for Jerusalem.

Some Arab analysts said Mr. Abbas' credibility could be hurt by the revelations but said it was unlikely to bring him or his government down.

"The position of the PA is already weak regarding the negotiations among other things. The documents will only embarrass the government and officials but would not result in changes or shifts in positions," said Imad Gad, an Egyptian analyst on Palestinian and Israeli affairs.

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