Who is a "Palestinian
Refugee?" Well, the short answer is, it could be almost anyone, even you
or me. The long answer gets a bit more complicated, but not too much. You
see, "Palestinian Refugee" is a prized political status. Let me explain,
Lately, a lot has been made of the so-called "right of return" of "Palestinian
Refugees." Two different private "peace" initiatives have come to light recently.
The first, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon document, called "the People Vote," is a
petition that Israeli Adm. and former head of the General Security Service
-- Israel's F.B.I. -- Ami Ayalon and Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh
have circulated. It calls on Israel to give up all the territory the Arabs
lost in the 1967 Middle East war and turn the land over to the Palestinians
for a state. Although Article 4, covering the refugee issue, says "Palestinian
refugees will return only to the State of Palestine; Jews will return only
to the State of Israel," it doesn't define who is a "Palestinian Refugee."
US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech in Washington recently,
disclosed he had met with Ayalon and Nusseibeh. Praising their efforts, Wolfowitz
said that the Nusseibeh-Ayalon proposal represented "a significant grass-roots
The second, more significant initiative, by former Israeli Justice Minister
Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo,
has been dubbed the "Geneva Accord." They held private talks in Geneva and
came up with a plan for a Palestinian state on nearly all of the West Bank
and Gaza. Most Jewish settlers would be uprooted. In their agreement, they
use the term "Palestinian Refugees" to mean, as registered with the United
Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
But nowhere in the agreement is the term clearly defined.
The Geneva Accord draft was recently sent to all Israeli families, as part
of a public campaign ahead of the December 1st accord-signing ceremony to
be held in Geneva. The draft consists of 48 pages, including a map; it's
claimed that 1.9 million copies in Hebrew were printed, under the title of
"The Geneva Initiative -- a model for a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement."
Two hundred thousand copies were said to be printed in Arabic, and 100,000
in Russian. The cost of the campaign has been estimated at 3 million shekels
-- about $650,000. France and Belgium are rumored to be underwriting the
These unofficial and unauthorized negotiations drew virtually no official
US attention until Secretary of State Colin Powell recently responded with
an encouraging letter to Beilin and Rabbo. "Dear Yossi and Yasser," Powell
wrote, "The U.S. remains committed to the president's two-state vision and
to the road map, but we also believe that projects such as yours are important
in helping sustain an atmosphere of hope."
The Quartet -- US, EU, UN and Russia -- issued in April 2003, "A Performance-Based
Roadmap To A Permanent Two-State Solution To The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."
Israel -- through Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- and the Palestinian Authority
-- through then Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas -- at the Aqaba Summit accepted
the roadmap. But the roadmap only mentions refugees in passing, never defining
them, and leaves it to final-status talks to determine their disposition.
Back in the summer -- after the roadmap was announced -- Palestinian Authority
Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, speaking at a hotel in the Lebanese capital
Beirut said, "No condition has been set for a return [only] to an independent
Palestinian state. The right of return is no longer an illusion. It is an
integral part of the Arab peace initiative, which is one of the reference
points in the roadmap." Shaath continued, "I want to be clear, this right
includes returning to an independent state and to Palestinian cities in the
Jewish state. Whether a person returns to Haifa [in Israel] or to Nablus
[Shechem in Judea/Samaria, the West Bank] their return is guaranteed," he
promised. The PA minister was referring to the Saudi initiative adopted by
an Arab League summit meeting in Beirut in March 2002. Evidently the Palestinians
see the roadmap very differently than the Israelis do.
So problematic is the "right of return" for Israeli politicians that even
opposition leader Knesset Member Shimon Peres of Labor and far-left Meretz
party MK's Yossi Sarid and Ran Cohen, after hearing of Shaath's speech, emphasized
that they would adamantly oppose a peace agreement that includes a Palestinian
right of return to Israel, since such a right poses a threat to the state's
identity and to the solution of two states for two peoples. Labor MK Matan
Vilnai said, "The Palestinians had better realize that all the parties in
Israel are united against the so-called right of return."
Quickly, senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said that, "there will
never be a return of refugees to the State of Israel." And Israeli government
spokesman Avi Pazner emphasized that the road map did not address the right
of return, and that refugees would never be allowed to return to Israel.
"It's a statement that can only hurt things because it's false," he said.
"The roadmap says absolutely nothing about the [refugees'] right of return
and this statement is detrimental" to implementation of the roadmap.
"Israel has no intention, under any circumstance and within any framework,
of accepting the return of refugees in Israeli cities which Nabil Shaath
terms Palestinian cities," Pazner said. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's
spokesman Raanan Gissin also jumped in declaring, "There is no Israeli government
that will ever accept it. There will be no Palestinian state so long as they
continue to espouse the right of return."
And they're all right; Israeli Jews won't accept "Palestinian Refugees" returning
to Israel. According to a recent study, The Peace Index Project, conducted
by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University on
August 31 to September 2, 2003, when told that "according to international
law, people who leave their homes during war out of their own desire or because
they are expelled, have the right to return to their home at the end of the
conflict," and then asked, "Do you agree or disagree to the idea that this
principle is appropriate also for the case of the Palestinian refugees?"
76.3% of Israeli Jews disagreed.
Then asked, "If the last thing in the way of reaching a peace agreement was
Israel's recognition in principle of the right of return of the Palestinian
refugees where this recognition did not mean actually giving the refugees
the opportunity to return. Under those circumstances would you support or
oppose Israel recognizing the principle of right of return?" Again, an overwhelming
majority of two-thirds opposed such an agreement. But notice in all this
discussion that who is a "Palestinian Refugee" is never defined.
Neither the former PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas nor the current one, Ahmed
Qureia, have given up their perceived "right of return for refugees," neither
have any other Palestinian leaders. In a September 1999 visit to China --
according to the newspaper Al-Ayyam -- Qureia demanded the so-called
"right of return" as a basic condition for peace: "Either [we achieve] a
just peace that will guarantee the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian
people, including [the] Return, self determination, and the establishment
of an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, or there will be no
peace, but a return to the struggle in all its forms," he said.
Two of the better articles to have appeared recently, discussing many different
aspects of the "Palestinian Refugees" issue -- including whether the so-called
"right of return" is recognized by General Assembly Resolution 194, it isn't
-- are, "Who Wants to be a Palestinian Refugee?" by Steven Plaut, and "How
the West Weakens Israel" by David Bedein. Yet they never define who a "Palestinian
Refugee" is either.
I think I've kept you in suspense long enough; let' look at the only existing
"legal" definition of who a "Palestinian Refugee" is. It comes from the United
Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA),
which is a "relief and human development agency, providing education, healthcare,
social services and emergency aid to over four million refugees living in
the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and the Syrian Arab republic,"
as per their website. So-called "Palestinian Refugees" living the good life
in America, Europe, or elsewhere, don't count.
"Under UNRWA's operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose
normal place of residence was Palestine [the Palestine Mandate] between June
1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a
result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA's services are available
to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who
are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. UNRWA's definition
of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in
1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown
from 914,000 in 1950 to more than four million in 2002, and continues to
rise due to natural population growth," again as per their website.
Notice the phrase "covers the descendants of persons," unlike other refugees
under the UN's auspices; "Palestinian Refugees" are able to transfer refugee
status on to their heirs. What a political concession from the UN...
Before discussing anything further, I want to point out that the registration
of "refugees" occurred a full two years after the conflict. Many other reliable
estimates put the figure lower, at about 550,000-600,00. But even that includes
the 36,800 "legal" & "illegal" Arab immigrants -- from North Africa,
Egypt, Syria Lebanon, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula -- to the Palestine
Mandate as reported by the British administration of the time. That also
includes 57,000 Bedouin-nomads who had no permanent domicile. And that includes
at least 170,000 Arabs -- originally from the West Bank or Gaza -- who moved
into Jewish areas -- that later became the State of Israel -- looking for
work during the Mandate period, and who later fled, during the war, and returned
home. If you subtract all these people, real refugees probably number no
more than 300,000.
Joan Peters in "From Time Immemorial" notes that her "maximum figure of 343,000
is less than half the number of refugees claimed by the Arabs immediately
after their leaving, before the numbers were reportedly further 'inflated'
in the refugee camps." By 1950, the Arab nationalists of Gaza, the West Bank,
Jordan, Egypt and North Africa, Syria, and Lebanon who volunteered to be
"Palestinian Refugees" managed to triple the figure. So that we have the
impossible claim that 300,000 people in 1948 have grown to more than 4 million
in just 55 years.
I want to point out that UNRWA's definition of "Palestinian Refugees" as
"persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine [the Palestine Mandate]
between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood
as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict," in theory could have applied
equally to Jews as well as Arabs. In fact, before 1948 Jews were called Palestinians
-- because they lived in the Palestine Mandate -- whereas Arabs frowned on
the label and continued to identify themselves only as Arabs. Claiming to
be part of the greater "Arab nation." It can be seen even in how they named
their institutions, such as the "Arab Higher Committee."
As UNRWA said, "services are available to all those living in its area of
operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and
who need assistance." It should be noted that about 900,000 Jews became refugees
from Arab countries, when they were expelled or fled under threat of death
-- in the same period -- another 20th century example of ethnic cleansing.
They lost their land, homes, property and possessions, businesses, and community
assets -- such as Synagogues and other communal properties. About 650,000
went to the Palestine Mandate area -- later Israel -- if the State of Israel
hadn't taken care of them, they too would have qualified for UNRWA aid. Why
didn't the Arab states help their brothers?
For that matter, when the Arab states, Arafat and the PA demand compensation
for the so-called refugees, you should know that Israel, back in the early
1950's -- to help alleviate the plight of the "Palestinian" Refugees" --
released monies from dormant Bank Accounts (of the refugees) totaling over
$50 million at the time, through the UN agencies dealing with them. They
might demand the return of real estate -- how much did they really own? --
but their liquid assets have long been turned over to them.
There you have it, the UN's definition of a "Palestinian Refugee": Any person
-- who lived in the Palestine Mandate two years before the creation of the
State of Israel (1948), and their descendants.
So you may end up with absurd scenarios like, a young Arab man from Iraq
moving to the Palestine Mandate in the late-1930's, looking for work, and
then fleeing when the war broke out in 1948. He then moves to Jordan and
marries a nice Bedouin girl, not "Palestinian." He has 7 kids, and they marry
nice Bedouin boys and girls. Today he has 29 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
That means, at least 48 refugees -- according to the UN -- plus the spouses
(family reunification don't forget). Maybe that's how you get from 300,000
to 4 million?
Or, the equally absurd scenario of a young North African Arab man fleeing
the British war against the Nazis in 1945, who then settles in the Palestine
Mandate, marries a nice Italian girl, only to flee to Gaza with the outbreak
of hostilities against the Jews in 1948. He's counted along with all his
descendants -- who by the way also married Europeans -- as a "Palestinian
Refugee?" Forget the "natural population growth" the UN claims. The
numbers are being played with. "Palestinian Refugee" status is a coveted
political symbol, not to mention a lucrative "job," with economic benefits
from UNRWA and the PLO.
It's ludicrous that someone who lived in the Palestine Mandate for two and
a half years, could be on the "International Dole" for the next 50 years,
along with all his descendants. It's just plain wrong, that people who moved
to Haifa or Tel-Aviv from the West Bank or Gaza, then returned home, should
claim refugee status, and cry over their lost economic opportunities -- working
for the Jews -- and demand the world give them a hand-out. What a cushy "job."
What great benefits, at the world's expense. UNRWA's largest donors are the
United States, European Commission, the UK and Sweden. Other major donors
include the Gulf Arab States, Scandinavian countries, Japan and Canada. They
should all be furious...
And why should all these "Palestinian Refugees" -- many of whom aren't even
indigenous to the area -- have a "right of return" to the area of the former
Palestine Mandate -- Israel or the Palestinian Authority?
I just can't get it out of my head, "Who is a Palestinian Refugee?" Well it could have been you or me.
Ariel Natan Pasko is an independent analyst & consultant. His articles can be read at: www.geocities.com/ariel_natan_pasko.