What will happen to Palestinian children if UNRWA schools don’t open?

In the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, the agency provides education to about 225,000 students in 370 schools.

By
August 31, 2019 19:25
3 minute read.
A Palestinian woman stands outside a closed school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency

A Palestinian woman stands outside a closed school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), during a strike by the agency's employees union to protest against job cuts, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 2, 2018. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)

The new school year in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem comes amid growing concern among Palestinians over the fate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, which operates hundreds of schools and provides educational programs to hundreds of thousands of students.

In the West Bank and east Jerusalem, UNRWA provides education to more than 45,000 students in 96 schools. In addition, the agency runs two vocational training centers that serve more than 1,000 students.

The remaining schools in east Jerusalem are privately-owned, or belong to the Jerusalem Municipality or the Islamic Wakf.

In the Gaza Strip, the agency’s schools and education programs serve nearly 180,000 students in 274 schools.

Palestinian officials are worried that recent reports about corruption among the top brass of UNRWA may result in ending the agency’s mission and depriving hundreds of thousands of students from going to school.

On the eve of the new school year, New Zealand announced that it was suspending funding to UNRWA pending the end of an investigation surrounding allegations that senior agency officials had engaged in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority.”

New Zealand provided nearly $1.6 million to UNRWA in the first six months of 2019.

Earlier, three other countries – the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium – also announced that they were halting funding to the agency over the corruption scandal.

Echoing concern over the fate of UNRWA, particularly in light of the US administration’s 2018 decision to cut US funding to the agency, PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat last week called on UN chief António Guterres to accelerate the ongoing probes into the corruption scandal.

Erekat also expressed “regret” over the decisions of the three European counties to suspend funding to the agency.

“Half a million Palestinian children who depend on your regular contributions cannot suspend their classes until the results of the investigation,” Erekat said in letters he sent to Guterres and the governments of the three countries.

The number of students mentioned by Erekat refers to students who have enrolled in UNRWA-run schools for the new year in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Erekat and other Palestinians are concerned that UNRWA’s mandate may not be renewed by the UN this fall due to the corruption scandal and the decline in financial contributions.

It’s not clear at this stage whether the Palestinians have an alternative plan for the education system should UNRWA cease to exist.

What is certain, however, is that the Jerusalem Municipality seems to have a plan to replace UNRWA-run schools in east Jerusalem. In fact, Israel has indicated that it would be happy to see the agency totally removed from the city.

Former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat told the Internal Affairs Committee of the Knesset earlier this year that he fully supports ending UNRWA’s operations in the city.

“Money is not an excuse – and budget is not a consideration – when we come out and say: In Jerusalem there are no refugees – there are residents, and sovereignty is ours,” he said. “UNRWA strengthens terrorism. The time has come to remove UNRWA from Jerusalem and replace their failing education, welfare, health and cleaning services with municipal services.”

Barkat and some Israeli government officials argue that the cost of replacing UNRWA-run schools with new ones that are funded by the Jerusalem Municipality or the Education Ministry is very low.

So, while Israel is saying it is ready to provide an alternative to UNRWA’s educational services in Jerusalem, the Palestinians are arguing that they have no idea what will happen to the school children in the West Bank and Gaza Strip once the agency vanishes.

Palestinian Authority officials warned this week of a “big disaster” in the Gaza Strip if the agency’s activities are stopped.

“It will be a huge problem because of the high number of students who rely on UNRWA schools,” said an official with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Ministry of Education. “This could lead to an explosion.”


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