Defying funding cuts, UN schools for Palestinians open on time in Lebanon
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Defying funding cuts, UN schools for Palestinians open on time in Lebanon

Local director of UNRWA affairs rejects US claims that refugee agency is deeply flawed, regrets Washington decision to end financial support

Palestinian students receive new studying books inside their classroom, during the first day of a new school year, at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)
Palestinian students receive new studying books inside their classroom, during the first day of a new school year, at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

United Nations schools for Palestinians in Lebanon started the new school year on time on Monday, despite the US decision to cancel funding to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Students were giddy as they arrived at the Haifa Intermediate School in Beirut’s Bir Hassan neighborhood on Monday and sat through their first language, history, and math lessons of the year.

Claudio Cordone, director of the UNRWA affairs in Lebanon, called it a “joyful day,” and called on donor nations to fill the deficit left behind by the US decision announced Friday.

It was a day many thought would not come, at least not on time, as UNRWA faces some of its toughest pressures in its 68-year history. The Trump administration has expressed deep skepticism over the agency’s mission to provide education and social services to Palestinian descendants of refugees across the Middle East, and on Friday announced an end to US funding.

UNRWA was founded in 1949 to serve the Palestinians who left their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israel war, known in Israel as the War of Independence. Palestinians continue to depend on UNRWA to get by in countries outside Israel where they live but are treated as second-class residents with only limited rights.

Palestinian students stand outside a classroom as they wait to attend a ceremony to mark the return to school of a new year at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

The agency relies on the US for 30 percent of its budget. But the Trump administration on Friday called UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation” and halted $300 million in planned donations on the grounds that the organization is an obstacle to a settlement between Palestinians and Israel.

On Saturday, Jerusalem welcomed the US decision.

“Today we can express our deep regret over the announcement from the US that it will not fund the agency after decades of support. And we reject the criticism that the UNRWA schools and its health centers and its emergency assistance program is plagued by defects, and that they cannot be reformed,” said Cordone.

He said the agency was facing a $217 million deficit.

Rawan al-Hassan, a pupil, said students were acutely aware of the budgetary situation.

“We are happy, it’s the first day of school, we’re going to see our friends again. But we’re not very happy because they’re saying that the books are not good. They’re preparing us because there’s nothing good for us,” said al-Hassan.

The US administration had castigated UNRWA for failed practices, and indicated that it rejected the unique criteria by which it defines Palestinian refugees, whereby the UN agency confers refugee status not only on original refugees but on their millions of descendants, including those with citizenship or rights similar to citizenship elsewhere.

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