They are among the most destitute and politically impotent in the Middle East. More than 2 million are registered with the UN as refugees, 766,000 of whom live in concrete-and-tin shanties in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Israeli-occupied lands. They are also among the wealthiest, best educated, and most influential Arabs. In their ranks are millionaire bankers and building contractors, writers and lawyers, and leading academics at most major Mideast universities as well as at prestigious schools such as the Sorbonne and Harvard.
They are the Palestinians, an estimated 5 million people who are at the center of the Arab-Israeli dispute, which this year marks its 40th anniversary. Although one of the smaller Arab nationalities, the Palestinians are also among the most diverse.
Since a 1974 Arab summit, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has officially been the ``sole legitimate representative'' of the Palestinian people, but its activities are not a fair representation of the wider community's role in the region.
Beirut became a major regional center after Palestinians who left newly-created Israel helped it blossom, financially and physically. In the Gulf, Palestinians have had key roles in the oil industry, civil service, and academia. Palestinian engineers and builders have helped shape the physical environment in North Africa and the Arab heartland since the postwar wave of independence.
As a Mideast analyst said, ``The Palestinians' influence and impact are often disproportionate to their numbers.''
Yet Palestinians admit that they are often the outcasts, both envied and feared by other Arabs. ``Many Arabs have always envied superior Palestinian education and political organization,'' commented University of Chicago historian Rashid Khalidi.
``They have been feared because they challenged the strategy of Arab regimes, which did not want to fight Israel except verbally. Arab public opinion sympathized with the Palestinians, whereas the regimes did not. Arab regimes were dragged by public opinion into the confrontation, first with Zionism, then with Israel. That interaction continues to this day and limits the regimes' freedom of action.''
Palestinians are also widely noted for their adaptability and perseverance. Predominantly agrarian people before the creation of Israel, they have - in the absence of land - become the most skilled Arab population.
``We are the Jews of the Arab world,'' a young Palestinian once said referring to the emphasis on education. A study by Mohammad Hallaj, director of the Palestine Research and Education Center in Washington, concluded that Palestinians rank, proportionately, third in the world in numbers with post-high school educations.
``When an agrarian society loses its land, it loses not only property, but livelihood. For that reason, education became an obsession,'' Mr. Hallaj commented. ``Over the past 20 years particularly, there has been an unparalleled upsurge because it was necessary for survival. A mobile or insecure population can't rely on fixed economic activity, like industry. It has to have mobile `capital' that it can carry in its head.''
Skills have been vital to Palestinians now dispersed to the corners of six continents. The largest community outside the region is in the United States. Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, France, Canada, and West Germany are locations of significant Palestinian communities.
Dispersal, however, has not diminished the strong sense of national identity, according to Mr. Khalidi, a Palestinian who was born in the US. ``All Palestinians in the Diaspora and in occupation share a certain set of memories or experiences. This is reinforced by a strong political culture which draws on these experiences. That is in turn reinforced by common circumstances of statelessness and alienation,... You're different and you're made to know you're different, wherever you are.''
Among exiles, the continued links are evident in financial contributions made to the PLO, the intermarriage of new generations who have never lived in Palestine, and employment of fellow Palestinians. ``There is a whole network which reinforces the political factors, culturally and socially,'' Mr. Khalidi said.
Mr. Hallaj added, ``Ask generations born in the Diaspora where they are from and they will tell you the village of their fathers or grandfathers.''
Only a minority still live in what was, until 1948, the British mandate of Palestine. According to the Middle East Research and Information Project, 42 percent of the world's Palestinians live in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, compared with 78 percent in 1952.
While thousands of Palestinians have become citizens of the nations in which they now reside, the vast majority of those outside Israel and the occupied territories are, in effect, stateless, Hallaj said. They have local or UN identity cards, instead of passports. ``It's not an issue of people stubbornly refusing to acquire citizenship of other countries. In the majority of cases ... this option is not available because of restrictive nationalization laws,'' he said.
The passion of Palestinian nationalism has permeated most aspects of life. Even humor has a nationalist tone.
As more than 6,000 Palestinian guerrillas prepared to leave Beirut after the 1982 Israeli invasion, one told a popular story:
God told Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev, and Yasser Arafat they could each have one answer to one question. Reagan asked, ``How long will it be before capitalism rules the world?'' God replied, ``100 years,'' which led Reagan to cry. ``Why do you cry?'' asked God. ``Because it won't happen in my lifetime,'' Reagan replied.
Brezhnev then asked: ``How long will it be before communism rules the world?'' God replied, ``200 years,'' which led Brezhnev to burst into tears because it, too, would not happen in his lifetime.
Then Arafat asked, ``God, how long will it be before there is a Palestine?'' And God cried.
Robin Wright, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a former Middle East correspondent.
First of two parts. Next: How youth and religion are reshaping the Palestinian movement.