U.S. Senate Wades Into Thorny 'Refugee' Question

Only Palestinians Who Fled in 1948 Might Qualify

Generation After Generation: Palestinian children play in a West Bank camp. Some believe only those personally displaced in the 1948 war should be characterized as refugees, effectively excluding millions of descendents.
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Generation After Generation: Palestinian children play in a West Bank camp. Some believe only those personally displaced in the 1948 war should be characterized as refugees, effectively excluding millions of descendents.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 12, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
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Palestinian refugees, longtime pawns in regional and international struggles, have recently become a factor in American politics, as well.

An attempt by the U.S. Senate to define who exactly can be counted as a Palestinian refugee has pitted congressional Republicans and some Israel advocates against the Obama administration. The measure, an amendment to the defense spending bill presented by Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk, would require the State Department to report how many of the Palestinians served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency were personally displaced in the 1948 war. Although the version that was finally [approved}(http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501707_162-57444219/defining-a-palestinian-refugee-a-us-complication/) was watered down significantly, both sides believe it could eventually force the United States to make a concrete determination on the number of Palestinian refugees, which now ranges from 30,000, according to the minimalist approach, to 5 million, as official U.N. numbers suggest.

Beneath the political posturing lies the core question of defining the status of Palestinian refugees. A unique set of circumstances has allowed Palestinians to pass on their refugee status generation to generation, making for a rare, albeit not unheard of, case of a refugee problem that is growing in numbers instead of shrinking.

“At the root of this story is a dividing line between European and non-European refugees,” said G. Daniel Cohen, a professor of history at Rice University who has written extensively on refugee issues. “The Palestinians,” he added, “were the first test case for this division after World War II.”

In the debate, which took center stage in May, each side clings to historical precedents supporting its claim.

For those who believe that refugee status should be given only to Palestinians who were personally displaced during the 1948 war, which led to the creation of the State of Israel, there are two key precedents: the plight of more than 12 million German refugees who were forced out of their countries of residence in postwar Europe, and the case of Indian and Pakistani refugees who were displaced following the partition of India in 1947. In both cases, refugees were resettled in their countries of residence without passing down the status to the next generations.

Pop Quiz: What do you call “descendants” of European refugees, Indian refugees, Pakistani refugees or Jewish refugees from the post-1945 or post-1948 turmoil? Answer: “Citizens of their respective lands,” Gil Troy [wrote in The Daily Beast.

“Look at American Jews,” added Asaf Romirowsky, a conservative researcher who has written extensively about the issue. “We’re all refugees.” Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum, two think tanks that actively advocate for limiting the definition of Palestinian refugee status.

But historic precedents work both ways. Supporters of a broader definition point to the Tibetan population in Nepal and to the scattered Kurdish population as communities that have maintained their refugee status beyond the first generation of being displaced or deprived of their own state. “Replace the word ‘Palestinian’ with ‘Tibetan’ and see what happens,” a senior U.N. diplomat suggested. “Talk to the Dalai Lama and tell him Tibetans aren’t refugees.”

The Palestinian refugee problem dates back to the 1948 war. The creation of the State of Israel came after nearly two years of fighting between the Jewish population and the Arabs of Palestine, supported by surrounding Arab nations. According to estimates, some 650,000 to 800,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced out of their homes, never to be allowed back. Experts believe that 30,000 of those originally displaced are still alive.


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