UNRWA schools in West Bank, Gaza to open on time despite US funding freeze
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UNRWA schools in West Bank, Gaza to open on time despite US funding freeze

UN body receives additional $238 million in funds for 526,000 pupils in 711 schools, though it warns the sum is far from enough

Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory School in Gaza City, January 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Hundreds of UN-run schools for Palestinian refugees will open on time after fresh funding temporarily staved off a financial crisis triggered by a US contributions freeze, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said all 711 schools it runs for 526,000 pupils in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria would open for the coming school year.

There had been warnings from UN chief Antonio Guterres and others that the schools might not be able to open due to funding shortages provoked by US President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold aid to the Palestinians.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) said it had mobilized an additional $238 million since the start of the year, but added that it currently only had enough cash to keep its services operating through September.

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

The schools are due to open over a staggered time period between August 29 and September 2.

Under Trump, the US has frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to UNRWA, with the president linking the decision to the Palestinians’ refusal to speak with his administration after he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and because they were “no longer willing to talk peace.”

Other countries have since provided additional contributions but UNRWA says it is not enough.

The agency provides services to more than three million Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East and employs more than 20,000 people, the vast majority Palestinians.

Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Last month, UNRWA announced it was cutting more than 250 jobs in the Palestinian Authority due to the funding crisis.

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by, uniquely, granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide. The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged that funding for Palestinian refugees be maintained, but not through UNRWA. Rather, he has called for it to be transferred through the UN’s main refugee body, UNHCR.

Israel has often criticized UNRWA, accusing it of sheltering terrorists and allowing Palestinians to remain refugees even after settling in a new city or country for many generations, thus complicating a possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UN officials and others say that the agency provides vital services to the vulnerable communities under its mandate.

Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, has been pushing to remove the refugee status of millions of Palestinians as part of an apparent effort to shutter UNRWA, according to emails published earlier this month by Foreign Policy magazine.

“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Kushner wrote in an email dated January 11, just days before the US froze $65 million in funding for UNRWA. “This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

“Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are… Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there,” he added in the email, according to Foreign Policy.

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