UN schools for Palestinians reopen despite US funding cut

Adel Zaanoun
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A Palestinian girl heads to her UN-run school in Balata refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on the first day of the new academic year on August 29, 2018

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.

- 'There is fear' -

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.

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," 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, 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".

- US criticises school curriculum -

Israel and the United States accuse UNRWA of perpetuating the Israel-Palestinian crisis by maintaining the idea of the right of return -- that Palestinians will be able to return to the homes from which they fled.

Palestinians see the US embassy move and efforts to change the mandate of UNRWA as attempts to strip them of their rights.

On Tuesday, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, said her country would want to "look at right of return".

She cited reports that UNRWA's school curriculum included unjust criticism of Israel and the United States, charges which the agency rejects.

"UNRWA can stay there, and we will be a donor if it reforms what it does. If it goes and makes sure that they're not doing those teachings in textbooks, if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account, we will look back at partnering them."

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Wednesday that the US embassy move and pressure over the right of return were having a "devastating effect" on the peace process.

Gunness pointed out that the US could not force the agency to change its mandate, as that would need a vote at the United Nations General Assembly.

"If one member state decides to reduce our funds, that doesn't change our mandate, it just means we have less money to do it," he said.