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. But first...

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 a former head of the Israeli 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 movement."

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 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 those 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 is 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 three million shekels - about $650,000. France and Belgium are rumored to be underwriting the costs.

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 Road Map. But the Road Map 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 Road Map 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 Road Map." 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 Road Map 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 MKs 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 Road Map says absolutely nothing about the [refugees'] right of return and this statement is detrimental" to implementation of the Road Map.

"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; lets 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" and "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 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 it is 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 seven 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 is 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, the 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.

(c) 2003/5764 Pasko