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U.N. schools open in West Bank, Gaza despite U.S. funding cut

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JALAZONE, West Bank (Reuters) - Schools run by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees opened in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip on Wednesday after it secured funding to offset cuts by its main donor, the United States.

The beginning of the school year had been in doubt after the United Nations Relief and Works (UNRWA) said it lacked funds to pay the 22,000 teachers in its schools in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

“We’re very determined to keep these schools open,” Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the UNRWA, told reporters at a girls’ school in the West Bank refugee camp of Jalazone as students in pinstripe uniforms turned out for callisthenics in the courtyard.

The United States earlier this year cut its aid to UNRWA to $60 million from a promised $350 million for the year, saying the agency needed to make unspecified reforms and calling on the Palestinians to renew peace talks with Israel.

Two weeks ago, Krahenbuhl said schools would open on schedule now that the agency had received $238 million in additional contributions since the beginning of the year.

At the Jalazone school, he said Qatar and the United Arab Emirates provided $50 million each and UNRWA hoped to receive another $50 million announced by Saudi Arabia, but at the moment the agency was still short of $200 million.

Krahenbuhl said UNRWA schools in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, would open early next week as planned.

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

Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, editing by Andrei Khalip