Words play a central role in the conflict with the Palestinians. They influence the way we perceive it, as well as the probability of finding a solution. That is why it is strange that Israel, of all countries, in its official state bodies, employs the same word used exclusively by the Palestinians — “refugees” — when talking about the millions of people who in any other context would not be described as such.
In actuality, the vast majority of those people are descendants of the original refugees, who would not have been eligible to receive such a status had the conflict involved any other country but Israel. In any other conflict in the world resulting in refugees, they fall under the purview of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. According to UNHCR guidelines, refugee status cannot be automatically passed down a generation, and under no circumstance can this status be inherited without the simultaneous effort to resettle those refugees.
Only the Palestinian refugees have their own U.N. agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which grants, under its own auspices, automatic refugee status to any descendant of the original refugees — already in their fifth generation. Even worse, UNRWA does this while absolutely negating, as a condition of its work, any attempt to resettle the descendants of those Palestinian refugees in their current locations (the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) or in any new place, thus perpetuating their situation. In other words, according to UNRWA, anyone born in Gaza to parents who were born and lived their entire lives there, who were also born to parents who were born and lived their entire lives in Gaza, is still considered a refugee from “Palestine.”
In the current situation, Israel’s adoption of the Palestinian term constitutes, even if unintentionally, a type of de facto recognition that instead of a mere tens of thousands of refugees, who indeed lost their homes during the war in 1948 and are still alive, there are 5 million at the very least. Moreover, the mere use of the term “refugees” implies recognition of the idea of letting them return. After all, the misleading connotation is the image of people who have escaped the battle zone, huddled in tattered tents exposed to the wind and cold, waiting for the fighting to stop so they can return home. No one thinks of middle-class Palestinians living in Ramallah as citizens of the Palestinian Authority, who were also born to parents from Ramallah and so on, but who are also labeled refugees.
When people speak about the millions of “refugees” who will return to their homes, it is obvious that no type of peace accord can be reached which is based on one state for the Jewish people and a Palestinian state. However, if people would correctly only discuss the tens of thousands of actual refugees, all over the age of 65, the question would then receive its proper proportions and a solution to the problem could be rationally discussed.
As long as negotiations are ongoing and no final-status deal has yet been signed, it would behoove at least the Israeli side to refrain from using the Palestinian term with all its inherent meanings and connotations, instead using the accurate term, “descendants,” who are not the same as refugees.