Israel expressed its disappointment on Monday over its exclusion from an international conference on Palestinian refugees and over reports that the conference was used as a platform for Israel-bashing.

The two-day conference, held in Geneva, Switzerland last week, was hosted by the Swiss government, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation for the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which is the U.N. agent for humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees.

It brought together more than 400 representatives from 67 countries and 34 international organizations “to increase international support” for the needs of Palestinian refugees, organizers said. Israel was not among those invited to the conference.

The issue of resettling Palestinian refugees is among the thorniest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Palestinians insisting on what they call the “right of return” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and millions of their descendents to within the borders of Israel.

Liberal and conservative Israelis agree that such a scenario would be a demographic time bomb bringing about the end of Israel as a Jewish state within a few years.

The conference was supposed to be about raising donor support and awareness of the Palestinian refugee humanitarian needs and was supposed to exclude the issue of the “right of return,” U.N. sources said.

But according to David Bedein, bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency, the issue of the “right of return” was just one among many that displayed an “invective” against Israel.

“UNRWA allowed the PLO Refugee Affairs Department to put up a table in which it distributed its materials to promote the ‘right of return,'” said Bedein in an article published on the agency’s website.

“The PLO distributed precise maps of where and how the UNRWA camp residents could take back their homes from 1948,” said Bedein, who attended the conference.

Israel said on Monday that it had expressed its regrets prior to the conference over not having been invited and was also disappointed by reports that the conference had been allowed to slide into “Israel-bashing.”

“We deplore the fact that according to the media reports this congress served as a platform for political declarations against Israel,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.

“We expressed it to the Swiss authorities, and we intend to raise this issue with UNRWA representatives,” it said.

Andre Motyl, deputy to the Swiss Ambassador in Tel Aviv, said that while the Swiss had hosted the conference, UNRWA would have been responsible for inviting the guests.

UNRWA holds two major donor meetings each year, said Paul McCann, chief spokesman for UNRWA here. Israel was not invited, because it is not a donor country to UNRWA, McCann said.

According to McCann, he said he understood that Israel was glad not to have been invited to the conference because political speech and rhetoric were avoided and the conference could be maintained as a humanitarian project.

A Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said that Israel is never invited to the UNRWA conferences, because it is not a donor, but this conference was different.

This conference was billed as “the largest conference on the Palestine refugee issue in 56 years,” i.e. since the beginning of the Palestinian refugee issue.

According to the official, Israel was told that it was not invited because it was not a donor or potential donor country, nor was it a host country of Palestinian refugees even if it is involved with the greatest number of Palestinians.

There are nearly 1.7 million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, 387,000 in Lebanon, 401,000 in Syria and some 1.5 million refugees among more than 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Israel does not give direct aid to UNRWA, the Israeli official said, it does contribute to the U.N., from which part of UNRWA’s budget is drawn, and it does facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries to the Palestinians and does not tax that aid.

Israel is not “anti-aid to UNRWA,” the official said.

According to UNRWA, there are some 4.1 million Palestinian refugees. Palestinian sources generally quote a higher figure of some six million.

The U.N.’s definition for a Palestinian refugee is different from its definition of all other refugees worldwide.

According to UNRWA’s operational definition found on its website “Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was [British Mandatory] 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… 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,” it says.

United Nations High Commission For Refugees, which handles refugee concerns, defines a refugee on its website as “a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there for fear of persecution.”

This piece ran on the CNSNews Wire on June 14th, 2004