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Right-Wingers in Israel and U.S. Struggle Against Concept of Palestinian Refugee

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It is hard to believe, but right-wing Israelis and their allies here are now arguing that the concept of refugee applies only to the first generation, i.e., the people who actually fled or were driven from their homeland, not their descendants. Yes, that formulation would have eliminated any right of Jews to return to Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, after 95 generations, but nonetheless, in their zeal to be done with Palestinian claims, that is what the right is arguing.

They are doing that because the Palestinian refugees' existence, and that of their descendants, are an ugly stain on Israel's birth certificate.

If Israel was created at the expense of the Palestinians, then Israel must make amends to them to achieve full legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of many Israelis.

It could do that by acknowledging the fact that it caused the refugee problem. Even if one accepts the myth (now thoroughly discredited) that the Palestinians fled on their own rather than having been driven out, one cannot argue with the fact that it was the Jewish migration to Palestine that caused them to leave.

Had Jews not begun immigrating to Palestine in the 19th century and had the Jewish community been limited to the indigenous local population, the Palestinians would have remained in the towns and villages they had inhabited from time immemorial. (This is not to say that Palestinians did not play a role in their own catastrophe by ignoring the handwriting on the wall and rejecting the Palestinian state that the United Nations offered them in 1947. However, from their point of view, without the Jewish migration that began in the 19th century, 100 percent of Palestine would have remained theirs.)

Does that mean that Jews had no right to return to their ancestral home?

Not to me, it doesn't. But it does mean that their return was accomplished at the expense of the people who lived there.

In addition to acknowledging its responsibility for the refugee problem, Israel can eliminate this stain on its birth certificate by agreeing to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem, with all refugees having the right to settle there. Or by giving Palestinians full democratic rights in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, with the goal being one democratic state for two peoples between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

In exchange, Israelis achieve peace, security, and normalization with the entire Arab world as was offered twice by the Arab League.

However, there is little evidence that the right-wing Israeli government is ready to do any of these things, with some Israelis and their friends here believing they can work through the United States Congress to eliminate the whole idea of Palestinian refugees and hence any obligation to Palestinians at all.

On May 24 the Senate unanimously passed an amendment offered by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to the $52.1 billion fiscal foreign operations appropriations bill. It sounds innocuous. Ha'aretz described it as requiring "the State Department, for the first time, to do a 'count' of Palestinian refugees":

The amendment required the State Department to specify how many of the five million Palestinians who receive aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) are refugees who were personally displaced from their homes in 1948, and how many are descendants of those refugees."

The "hook" that enables Congress to get involved in refugee counting is the funding the United States provides to the United Nation and to UNRWA. The U.S. has every right to know if it is being ripped off.

However, that was not the real intention of Kirk or the people who devised the amendment for him -- an Israeli Knesset member and two lobbyists here who work on behalf of right-wing Israeli causes.

Here is the real story, again from Ha'aretz. Under the headline, "Israeli MK, AIPAC behind Senate bill to cut total number of Palestinian refugees," Barak Ravid reports that "the Kirk amendment got its start in the Jerusalem office of Member of Knesset Einat Wilf... who toiled for months together with AIPAC lobbyists and Kirk's staff to promote the change."

Initially, the Israeli government opposed the change with a senior Defense ministry official arguing that "UNRWA plays an important role in aiding the Palestinian population."

But then Member of Knesset Wilf turned to "AIPAC staffers and also approached Steven J. Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the organization who now works for a Washington think tank, to get things rolling on Capitol Hill."

And, like magic, the Kirk amendment passed.

The reason the Defense Ministry initially opposed it was that it thought the amendment's purpose was to cut aid to refugees, something Israel had no interest in doing.

But AIPAC and Rosen, who was fired by the organization after being indicted under the Espionage Act (the government never took the case to trial) were not interested in starving refugees per se. Their goal was making the whole concept of Palestinian refugees go away.

Here is how Daniel Pipes, who is Steve Rosen's boss at the far-right Middle East Forum described the purpose of the amendment in National Review Online. After claiming credit for Steve Rosen and himself for getting Kirk to carry their amendment, Pipes explains why it is important:

The fetid, dark heart of the Arab war on Israel, I have long argued, lies not in disputes over Jerusalem, checkpoints, or "settlements." Rather, it concerns the so-called Palestine refugees.

So called because of the nearly 5 million official refugees served by UNRWA (short for the "United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East"), only about 1 percent are real refugees who fit the agency's definition of "people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." The other 99 percent are descendants of those refugees, or what I call fake refugees.

Using Pipes' definition -- that the only refugees are those who actually fled in 1948 -- he writes that "in about 50 years not a single real refugee will remain alive" thereby "solving" the whole refugee problem through accounting.

The stain on Israel's birth certificate will be removed and no one will be able to call on Israel to do anything for the refugees because there won't be any.

It's brilliant, and diabolical.

In fact, the argument that the only refugees are people who themselves were driven out and not their descendants is ridiculous. My wife's family was driven out of Poland by the Germans during World War 11. Not only did her parents receive reparations from the Germans, she (and, after her, our children) are able to claim the property left behind in Poland. Thousands of young Israelis claim German citizenship on the basis that their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were Germans until the Holocaust. Even Israel's most famous prisoner of war, young Gilad Shalit, is a citizen of France through ancestry, which is why the French government fought so hard for his release.

Refugee status does not end with the generation that fled or was expelled just as suffering the loss of one's homeland does not end after the original refugees die. The loss is forever. After all, refugees are not simply immigrants who left their homeland to seek a better life. They were forced out or fled.

That is why, in the end, the Kirk amendment will have no effect. International law cannot be created to affect only one people.

The amazing part is that Israel and its lobby are pushing a concept that would jeopardize the rights of Jews and Israelis to return to (and live in) the homeland their ancestors were driven from. After all, if the generation of Jews that actually fled Eretz Yisrael 1900 years ago is the only one that had the right to return there, it means that the last Jew to whom the Law of Return (the right to citizenship in Israel) applied has been dead for some 1800 years. That negates the very idea of Zionism itself.

The target of the Kirk amendment is the Palestinians. But they would not be the only people to be hurt by the idea it embodies.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated since its original publication.