It's back to school for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, but funding cuts to the U.N. agency supporting them means students may only be in class until the end of month. One by one, students in the dilapidated U.N.-run Haifa school in a suburb of the Lebanese capital stand up to receive their textbooks for the fresh academic year. Books on physics, mathematics, geography, chemistry, some new, but most used and worn, are handed to the solemn eighth-graders sitting at chipped wooden desks. With no air conditioning in the classrooms, the late-morning heat is stifling.
Across the region, more than half a million Palestinian students may lose access to their education after the United States said it would stop backing the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
Washington, which until last year was by far the biggest contributor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), announced last Friday that it would no longer make any contributions to the "irredeemably flawed operation."
To keep its essential operations running until the end of the year, UNRWA says it needs $217 million, otherwise health centers and schools may be forced to close. In Lebanon alone, 66 UNRWA-run schools could shut by the end of September, depriving some 38,000 Palestinian students of an education.
An estimated 174,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, according to a census by national authorities last year, although the U.N. estimates there are tens of thousands more. They are barred from nearly 20 jobs, including many that require higher education like lawyer, doctor, and engineer. With no way out, generations have been stuck living in the dozen squalid, densely populated and poorly serviced refugee camps across the country.
The move by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration was described as "cruel and irresponsible" by senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi. "The Palestinian refugees are already the victims who have lost their homes, livelihoods and security as a result of the creation of the state of Israel," she said.
The U.S. has backed Israel in accusing the agency of perpetuating the Middle East conflict by maintaining the idea that many Palestinians are refugees with a right to return to homes in what is now Israel. But to Palestinians, the right of return for the hundreds of thousands who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's creation is central to their cause.
The UNRWA move is the latest in a number of actions by the Trump administration that have alienated the Palestinians, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That move was a reversal of a longtime U.S. policy and led Palestinian leadership to boycott the Washington peace efforts led by Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law.