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U.N. schools in Gaza begin school year uncertain if they will stay open

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza's students began their new school term on Sunday, but it is unclear if they will be able to complete the year uninterrupted due to a funding crisis at the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) runs 288 schools in the Palestinian territory, among 700 across parts of the Middle East region that it funds alongside 140 medical clinics.

But it is short of nearly $200 million needed to pay for staff salaries and keep the services running until the end of 2023.

“We haven’t secured all the funding we need to ensure that our schools can remain operational until the end of this year, so we are working on securing the funds needed to keep schools in Gaza open,” said Thomas White, Gaza director of UNRWA's affairs.

White said some donor countries would hold discussion about funding for UNRWA in September.

"In the event we don’t get the funding, it is 298,000 students who might not be going to school. In Gaza, it is 1.2 million people who may not have access to health care," White told Reuters during a visit to one U.N.-run school in Gaza City.

In addition to the $200 million to support its operational budget in the wider region, UNRWA also needs $75 million for food aid in Gaza.

Around two thirds of Gaza's 2.3 million population are refugees, mainly the descendants of those who fled or had been forced to flee their hometowns and villages around the 1948 war which saw the birth of the state of Israel.

The UNRWA schools educate a little under half of Gaza's young people, with around 300,000 students at government-run schools and others at privately owned schools.

In Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, Palestinian refugee Sami Abu Mallouh, 47, said his family of 12 depended on UNRWA for education, medical treatment and food aid.

"Without UNRWA we are worth nothing," Mallouh said.

(Reporting and Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Alison Williams)