Israel Denies Reports It Will Let Palestinians Return by Thousands

Israeli officials have denied reports that they have agreed to allow the return of 60,000 Palestinian refugees to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

The reports of Israel’s willingness to admit the refugees were made by sources within the Palestine Liberation Organization, which said the refugee question was covered under the self-rule agreement signed by Israel and the PLO last week in Washington.

PLO officials also said that Israel would eventually allow the return of some 400,000 refugees to the administered territories as a whole.

But government officials here have denied both statements.

On Sunday, Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur played down the number of Palestinian refugees who will be allowed to return to the territories according to the Israel-PLO accord on self-rule.

Gur said Israel does not accept in principle the right of Palestinian refugees to return and will not agree to a change in the demographic balance currently in existence within the territories.

He made the statement during a visit to the strategically important Allenby Bridge river-crossing into Jordan, shortly before he jointed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on a one-day visit to Egypt.

Gur did not say how many refugees would be let into the territories under the terms of the agreement with the PLO.

Knesset member Rafael Eitan of the right-wing opposition Tsomet party said over the weekend that the deal would amount to a first-stage implementation of a policy granting a Palestinian right of return.

The PLO has been demanding that Israel allow the return of all refugees who left the territories following the 1967 war.

The PLO has further stated that all Palestinian refugees from the War of Independence in 1948 should be able to choose between returning to the territories or receiving reparations.

Israel has long objected to even discussing the possible return of refugees who left following during 1948 war.

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