by Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
Israeli government study disputes U.N. aid agency's quote of 5 million Palestinian refugees, shares findings with Washington
An Israeli government study shared with Washington argues that Palestinian refugees number in the thousands, not the millions designated by a U.N. aid agency whose funding has been slashed by the Trump administration, an Israeli official said on Friday.
The fate of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 War of Independence and their descendants has long clouded U.S.-sponsored peace efforts.
Palestinians demand a refugee right of return to lands now in Israel. For its part, Israel rejects this demand, insisting that they settle where they are or in a future Palestinian state. Negotiations toward the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip stalled in 2014.
Demographics loom over the dispute. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, puts the number of refugees at some 5 million, a tally including descendants of the some 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in 1948.
Israel says only survivors among the original 1948 refugees should be considered refugees today - an idea fiercely opposed by the Palestinian leadership, which hews to the UNRWA numbers.
The Israeli study has not been published, and there was no immediate reaction from Palestinian officials or from UNRWA on its numbers.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely described 2018 as a "turning-point" for UNRWA and its definition of Palestinian refugees, "in that the United States has said 'no more' and the State of Israel is closing rank with this policy."
Speaking to Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM, Hotovely said researchers in her ministry and in Israel's National Security Council have compiled a report determining that there were "a limited number of thousands" of Palestinian refugees today.
"It does not come close to millions," she said, without elaborating on how Israel's researchers had calculated those lower figures.
Asked to respond to Hotovely's remarks, a U.S. official who requested anonymity told Reuters: "While the United States believes the UNRWA model is not appropriate or sustainable, we will not elaborate further at this time."
Last month, Israel Hayom was granted exclusive access to a position paper, in which officials maintain that U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to defund UNRWA "made it clear that the organization is not part of the solution but part of the problem."
In the policy paper, ministry officials conclude that UNRWA is a political organization that perpetuates the status of Palestinian refugees and feeds the cycle of violence and desperation.
"By inflating the number of registered 'refugees,' UNRWA sustains the demand for '[the right of] return' – a euphemism for Israel's destruction," the paper argues. "Actual Palestinian refugees deserve to receive the same international assistance that other refugees around the world receive from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in order to bring an end to, and not perpetuate their status."
In the paper, the Foreign Ministry outlines findings that indicate UNRWA has ties with Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip, saying that the agency, in fact, helps to incite against Israel.
In August, U.S. envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley said UNRWA should "change the number of refugees to an accurate account" in return for a restoration of U.S. funding for the agency. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton lambasted UNRWA's aid program as "the only one in history based on the assumption that refugee status is hereditary."
Members of the U.S. Congress are demanding the State Department make public a key report that includes precise figures on the number of people who became refugees in the 1948 War of Independence.
Sources who have seen the report say that the State Department's assessment was that only 20,000 of the 700,000 Arab refugees who fled Palestine during the War of Independence are still alive and displaced from their homes.
In an open letter issued the following month, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said "the protracted nature of the Palestine refugee crisis" was not unique. He said the children and grandchildren of long-displaced refugees in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Congo and elsewhere are also recognized as refugees and assisted by the United Nations.
Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
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