The US recognises all Palestinian refugees registered as such by the UN, the country’s ambassador to Jordan said on Monday in comments that roll back the previous government’s questioning of the numbers.
Henry Wooster's statement was a rejection of the suggestion by former US president Donald Trump's administration that only those who originally fled Israel should be counted as refugees, not their descendants.
“Irrespective of any administration, US policy can only count those refugees who are registered with the United Nations,” Mr Wooster told reporters during a visit to a US-funded clinic in the Baqaa refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Amman.
“This is the number we use,” he said, referring to at least 5.6 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees, mostly living in Jordan, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon.
The majority are now descendants of Palestinians who fled conflicts with Israel since it was created as a UN-recognised state in 1948.
UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini, who attended the visit alongside the US ambassador, welcomed the resumption of US support for the agency.
The numbers are a sensitive issue because Palestinians regard the right of return for all refugees as one of their main demands in any negotiations with Israel on a just and lasting solution to the decades-long conflict.
Their quest for an independent state, which is supported by Jordan, received a verbal boost from US President Joe Biden.
Mr Biden "affirmed that the United States supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” during a phone call with Jordan’s King Abdullah last week, the State Department said.
Mr Trump's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said shortly before leaving office in January that there were only 200,000 Palestinians still alive who were legitimate refugees.
He suggested that their descendants, many of whom also have Jordanian nationality, should not be counted as such.
His position fuelled fears in Jordan that the country would end up being what officials in Amman describe as alternative homeland for Palestinians if Israel continues a land grab in Palestinian territory west of the River Jordan.
The governments of Lebanon and Syria have expressed similar fears, maintaining that they will not become the permanent home for the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in their countries.
Mr Pompeo accused UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, of being “riddled with waste, fraud (and) concerns of support to terrorism”, after numerous accusations and a financial scandal in the agency.
Mr Wooster also indirectly addressed these claims on Monday.
“Our partnership with UNRWA will always embody high standards and commitment to accountability, efficiency, and transparency,” he said. “We look forward to this collaborative effort to do what we all want to do is help people in need. We have no better partner than UNRWA in this effort.”
Last Wednesday, Washington said it would donate at least $150 million to the agency, reversing a three-year funding halt by the Trump administration, which had pursued a peace plan that many Palestinians regarded as too tilted toward Israel.
“We encourage other donors to also support UNRWA’s programmes and activities that provide critical humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of vulnerable people,” Mr Wooster said.
The organisation “remains a lifeline to millions of Palestinian refugees”, he said.
Mr Lazzarini has said that funding for UNRWA represents “value for money” for the international community as it not only supports vulnerable people, but helps maintain stability in the areas where it operates.
“The adaptability and responsiveness of the UNRWA medical teams throughout the pandemic and their increased reliance on modern technology, including mobile health applications, are key to the contributions of UNRWA to the field of public health in Jordan,” he said during Monday’s visit.