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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

UN schools for Palestinians reopen despite US funding cut

UNRWA warned it might still be forced to close them if donors not found

Pupils are driven to a school run by the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City on August 29, 2018. AFP
Pupils are driven to a school run by the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City on August 29, 2018. AFP

Tens of thousands of Palestinian children returned to United Nations-run schools on Wednesday after the summer holidays, though major US cuts have thrown their funding into jeopardy beyond next month.

Children wearing chequered uniforms and backpacks thronged schools across the Palestinian territories for the first classes of the new school year, AFP correspondents reported.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) said all 711 schools it runs for 526,000 pupils in Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria would reopen in the next few days despite the $300 million US funding cut.

Fears raised by UN chief Antonio Guterres that the schools might not be able to reopen at all have failed to materialise, but UNRWA warned it might still be forced to close them again in a month if additional new funding is not found.

"At the moment, we do not have enough money to keep the schools open after the end of September," UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP.

"At the end of September, UNRWA will be running on empty for all its services, including schools and medical facilities."

In 2017, the United States, which is traditionally the largest single donor to UNRWA, contributed more than $360 million.

But so far this year, it has given just $60 million following President Donald Trump's decision to withhold aid to the Palestinians.

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Parents expressed deep concern about the uncertainty hanging over their children's education.

"We are afraid of the schools closing," Soha Abu Hasara told AFP in Gaza City as she dropped her children off for their first day back in the classroom.

"There is fear and the situation is not stable, and there is tension within UNRWA," she added.

Pupil Hala Muhanna, 11, said her "message to the world is that no-one has the right to close schools".

"Even if they take away our schools we will bring them back, and we will become more knowledgeable than any other country," she said.

UNRWA was formed to support 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war that accompanied the creation of Israel.

With their descendants, they now number more than five million across the Middle East.

The United States has sought to use its aid to pressure the Palestinian government into resuming dealing with it after a nearly nine-month rupture.

The Palestinians have boycotted the US administration since it recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital last December.

Last week, Mr Trump cancelled a further $200 million in aid projects for Palestinians not funded through UNRWA.

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi accused the US president of "cheap blackmail".