The United Nations has warned Jordan and Syria that it plans to close schools for 178,000 Palestinian refugee children in three months because of a $56 million deficit in its relief budget, U.N. officials said today.

In what the head of U.N. refugee relief operations here described as the worst crisis since the Palestinian exile community was formed during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, Arab states have cut back their contributions to the relief program and other nations have failed to make up the differences needed to keep the program active.

John Tanner, director of the U.N. Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) in Jordan, said that Jordan and Syria, beset by their own problems, would be faced with either assuming responsibility for the schools' operation or having thousands of refugee children with no place to go for a basic education.

The director of operations throughout the Middle East, Olof Rydbeck, who is based in Vienna, warned that closing the schools could lead to "the gravest political repercussions in the area."

Because the refugee problem in the Middle East has lingered for more than three decades, worried U.N. officials said, a sense of urgency has not made an impression on the world consciousness, and the crisis is being largely ignored.

In part, the problem may be of the program's own making, even if unwittingly, because for years the relief agency has sounded dire warnings of immiment budgetary collapse, only to be rescued at the last moment by a flurry of contributions.

"People now are saying this is just the annual bleating by Unrwa", Tanner said. "But this time we are not just crying wolf, and nobody is listening. It is very serious."

Also, the oil-producing Arab states are increasingly adopting the position that if they assume the financial burden of the refugee problem, the West will have less motivation for forcing a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Arab states in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries last year contributed 10.4 percent of UNRWA's budget, 60 percent of which goes to education. This year, however, they have contributed only 1.6 percent. With only a third of the year past, the relief agency's deficit is 26 percent of its $211.5 million budget.

In contrast, the United States and Canada together contribute 25 percent of the budget, with the United States providing $52 million alone.

Saudi Arabia, once one of the largest contributors with $10 million has steadily dropped to $1.2 million this year. Libya, which has been at odds with the Palestine Liberation Organization, owes back pledges of $5 million. w

For Jordan, the problem has become particularly acute because 39 percent of the Palestine refugees are here and foreign aid comprises more than half of the country's revenue. It is unprepared for a large investment in educating refugees.

Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Sharaf recently went to Saudi Arabia to appeal for a larger contribution to the U.N. project, and the relief agency independently appealed to PLO chief Yassar Arafat to pressure Arab states to increase their contributions. The PLO does not contribute to the program.

Faced with its deficit, the relief agency considered several options, including closing schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as Jordan and Syria, with the risk that the Israeli military government might not take over the cost of the schools in the occupied territories, Tanner said.

Instead, program officials opted to save $16.5 million of the deficit by forgoing cost of living raises to its teaching staff and another $16 million by cutting flour rations to refugees, thereby allowing the West Bank and Gaza schools to remain open.