JERUSALEM, June 8 (JTA) — Jewish groups and Swiss banks have taken a significant step toward returning the assets from unclaimed accounts that were opened by Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Swiss Bankers Association agreed to set up an independent panel to handle requests from Holocaust survivors or their heirs to locate the dormant bank accounts. The move announced last week represents the first time that Swiss banks have agreed to give an independent body the power to restore the missing accounts to their rightful owners. The number of such accounts has been widely disputed by Jewish leaders and Swiss banking officials. Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said in an interview here last week that there were 20,000 such accounts. Hanspeter Hani, the ombudsman appointed by the Swiss Bank Association to handle claims against the dormant accounts, called Burg’s figure “nonsense.” Jewish groups have charged that Swiss banks are holding up to $7 billion in assets deposited by Jews during the World War II era. Swiss banking officials said initial searches of their archives turned up only $32 million in unclaimed accounts. The new independent panel that will handle the claims was announced by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker during a special session last week of the Israeli Knesset’s Committee for the Restitution of Jewish Property. Volcker heads the Independent Commission of Eminent Persons, which was created by the WJRO and the Swiss Bankers Association in May 1996 to investigate the missing accounts. Volcker said the panel would seek to match claims by Holocaust survivors or their heirs with assets uncovered during bank audits. Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, called this procedure “a conceptual breakthrough” that would allow individual claimants to bypass the Swiss bank ombudsman, who had previously charged a hefty fee to investigate a claim. The Volcker Commission decided to appoint three judges to the panel, one each from the United States, Switzerland and Israel. The panel is expected to use lenient rules of evidence because of the difficulties that claimants have with presenting documents in connection with the accounts, which were opened more than 50 years ago. In the past, the Swiss banks’ strict secrecy laws effectively blocked claimants from recovering assets from the long-dormant accounts. The Volcker Commission also decided to allow the petitioners and their legal representatives to appear before the panel to present their claims. No similar mechanism was established for Swiss bank officials to counter those claims. The decisions will be final, according to the commission, which said there will be no right of appeal. Swiss banks will immediately have to pay claimants any sums decided on by the panel, but the banks will be then be free of any future liability related to the claims, the commission said. To facilitate the claims process, the names of dormant accounts that have been discovered will be made public through the media, the Internet and ads that will be published in a number of countries. Toll-free numbers will also be set up to handle questions from potential claimants. The Swiss banks have agreed to pay the costs of disseminating information about dormant accounts. The Volcker Commission worked successfully at getting bank secrecy laws lifted so that the names on the dormant accounts could be published. At last week’s special session of the Knesset restitution committee, the Volcker Commission also announced that five Swiss banks would soon be audited as part of its search for unclaimed bank accounts.