It is pretty much accepted that around 650,000 to 700,000 Palestinians became refugees during and after creation of the State of Israel. Whether they left on their own or were pushed out remains an issue that's hotly contested.
It turns out there's also plenty of disagreement as to how many Palestinians should be considered refugees today.
According to the figures compiled by the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the figure stands at some seven million, or more.
Not so, said Asaf Romirowsky, an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies and Middle East Forum. That figure is wildly inflated by bogus claims, by those who want to benefit from funds allocated to refugees and particularly by the very definition of "refugee" itself.
Of the number of people who might have been considered refugees 67 years ago, only about 30,000 remain. The others would not be refugees under any standard definition of the term, said Romirowsky, a former Israel Defence Forces international relations liaison officer in the West Bank and Jordan.
Romirowsky was in Toronto and Hamilton last week to address audiences as a guest of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR). He said UNRWA "has the most expansive definition of refugees in the world today." It includes any Arab living in the area from 1946 to 1948, including temporary workers, as well as their descendants.
It's the latter that really inflates the refugee numbers. Nowhere else are the children and grandchildren of refugees considered refugees. Under the definition employed by the UN's main refugee agency, UNHCR, which is mandated to assist all the other refugees in the world, refugee status is not something that can be inherited, he said.
UNHCR attempts to settle refugees in host countries, something Palestinians and UNRWA have long rejected. Palestinian identity is wrapped up in self-perception as refugees and Israel's foes long ago recognized that as a way to keep the conflict at the boiling point, Romirowsky said.
"It is the main ingredient for ensuring the longevity and continuation of the conflict from generation to generation," he stated.
UNRWA is something unique unto itself, he continued. Its 30,000 employees – UNHCR employs only around 6,000 people – are highly sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, which isn't surprising, given the vast majority of UNRWA's staff are Palestinians.
UNRWA advances the Palestinian agenda: its school textbooks are rife with calls to violence and the denial of a Jewish link to the Land of Israel, and it has adopted the Palestinian claim of a "Right to Return," which links any peace with Israel to the return of million of "refugees" to Israeli territory.
UNRWA long ago gave up any hint of neutrality in the conflict, he maintained.
Romirowsky noted that Peter Hansen, the former UNRWA commissioner-general in Gaza, stated in 2004: "I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don't see that as a crime… we do not do political vetting and exclude people from one persuasion as against another."
Furthermore, UNRWA is a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. It subsists on donations from private and state contributors.
"UNRWA learned since its inception that there's always a need for more and more money. It learned that the Arab world would give the money as long as it became the voice of the Palestinian people," Romirowsky stated.
Canada has de-funded UNRWA because of its lack of accountability and transparency, though the United States and the European Union continue to send it money every year. The U.S. contribution runs to some $230 million (US), but recently, Sen. Mark Kirk has initiated calls for more accountability for those funds.
"They asked for an audit and [UNRWA] went ballistic," Romirowsky said.
Steps have also been taken by individual U.S. members of Congress who have called for "an end date for the right of return." Based on the way UNRWA defines refugees, the number is bound to expand indefinitely, a situation that's ultimately unsustainable, he suggested.