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U.N. agency says schools for Palestinian refugees to open on time despite U.S. cut

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By Reuters
U.N. agency says schools for Palestinian refugees to open on time despite U.S. cut
Palestinians pass by the gate of an UNRWA-run school in Nablus in the occupied West Bank August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini   -   Copyright  ABED OMAR QUSINI(Reuters)

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Schools teaching half a million Palestinian refugees will reopen across the Middle East as planned later this month, a U.N. agency said on Thursday, despite funding cuts by its biggest donor the United States.

The opening of the schools on Aug. 29 had been in doubt after the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said it lacked funds to pay the 22,000 teachers in its educational network in the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Jordan and Syria.

UNRWA said students will return to its 711 schools on time though it still did not have enough money to fund them for a full school year.

U.N. officials said the agency needed more than $200 million (£157.4 million) from other contributors to cover its deficit after the U.S. aid cuts.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in January he would scale back aid to the Palestinians unless they cooperated with his plans to revive peacemaking with Israel. Those peace efforts stalled in 2014.

At a specially convened session of the UNRWA Advisory Commission in Amman, Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said that since the beginning of the year the agency had received $238 million in additional contributions after a funding drive but was not “out of the woods”.

“We currently only have funding to run the agency’s services until the end of September,” Krahenbuhl said in a statement. “We need a further $217 million to ensure that our schools not only open but can be run until the end of the year.”

UNRWA was founded in 1949 after the first Arab-Israel war, which led to 700,000 Palestinians being forced to leave their homes or flee. It helps around 5 million Palestinian refugees, a figure that includes descendants of those displaced by the fighting.

In January, Trump tweeted “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel.” The U.S. State Department has said the agency needed to make unspecified reforms.

Israel has accused UNRWA of favouring Palestinians and welcomed Trump’s move.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by David Holmes)