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More than half a million Palestinian refugee children are being educated in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Since it was founded in 1949, the agency has complied with the curriculum in the host country of the Palestinian refugees it assists, whether it is Palestine, Jordan, Syria or Lebanon.
But what if the curriculum incites violence against Israel? Can the United Nations (UN) afford to teach children to hate Jews?
This is at the core of a dispute between UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. The latter two feverishly oppose curriculum changes. The dispute started in February 2017, when Dr Einat Wilf, a former Israeli politician for the Labor Party, wrote a report in which she stated she had found inciting material in textbooks used by UNRWA. These are based on the official textbooks of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). If this material indeed incites violence and racism against Israeli Jews, Wilf concluded it may fail to comply with the UN standard for neutrality.
According to the pro-Israeli propaganda organization, Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, Palestinian textbooks are a key source of incitement that drives terror attacks. The neutrality of the textbooks is a sensitive topic for UNRWA. The organization has to tread a fine line between the wishes of the host countries and critics such as Dr Wilf, who are often from Israel or the United States (US). UNRWA needs to be especially attentive to push-back from the United States, since it is the organization’s biggest donor, even though, as a donor, the US cannot directly influence UNRWA policy.
Whether the textbooks are a source of incitement or not, Dr Wilf is by no means a neutral commentator. She describes herself as an avid supporter of Zionism, the foundational ideology of the Israeli state. In 2013, she wrote an article in Fathom Journal stating that the ‘perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem’ is ‘one of the greatest obstacles to peace’.
Since the 1948 al-Nakba (‘disaster’), in which 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in present-day Israel, all the children of these refugees are also considered refugees. There are now around 5 million of them, all of whom have the internationally acknowledged ‘right of return’ to Israel. Defying multiple UN resolutions, Israel has opposed this right for decades.
The status quo is that UNRWA assists and protects Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, relieving Israel of an inconvenient task. If UNRWA did not do so, Israel – as the occupying power – would be obliged to take over. Nonetheless, Israeli politicians routinely use inflammatory language against UNRWA. For example, in March 2017, Israel accused an UNRWA employee of being affiliated with Hamas. To date, no evidence to support the accusation has been produced. With regards to Dr Wilf’s assertions, UNRWA corrected elements of the curriculum. Among other things, the corrected texts state that Jerusalem has religious significance to Islam and Christianity as well as to Judaism. Other corrections include cases of gender bias, a lack of objectivity and inciting violence against Israel.
Moreover, the texts now state that the holy sites in Jerusalem are not forbidden for Muslims. This last change is somewhat counterintuitive, since access to many holy sites in Jerusalem is, in reality, restricted. For example, someone who is obviously a Muslim cannot visit the Western Wall. Access to Haram al-Sharif, the mountain in occupied East Jerusalem on which the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque stand, is also regularly restricted for Muslims of a certain age, notably young men. The Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the [Palestinian] Territories (COGAT) expressed its appreciation for the changes. The PA and Hamas were less enthusiastic.
Both threatened to take action against UNRWA, be it administratively or using violence. Both organizations deem any change to the Palestinian curriculum unacceptable. Palestinian Education Minister Sabri Saydam has refused outright to implement any change made by UNRWA. His ministry issued a statement that read: ‘Any attempt to change the Palestinian curriculum will be considered an assault on Palestine and an eradication and dilution of our national identity.’
At a popular protest in Gaza in late March 2017, protesters affirmed that ‘all steps seeking to wipe out the Palestinian national identity through changing the school curricula [were] consistent with the Israeli occupation authority’s attempts to erase the Palestinian people’s identity’ and would be absolutely rejected.’ The curriculum changes, the protesters said, were nothing less than ‘attempts to liquidate the refugee issue’. More than half of the 2 million citizens of Gaza are refugees. According to the Palestinian Information Centre (PIC), the protesters called on the UN ‘to put an end to the fierce attack carried out by the Israeli government against the Palestinian curricula to entrench the culture of racism, terrorism and incitement against the Palestinian people’. Among the protesters was an organization called the Supreme Council of Parents in the UNRWA.
Rather ironically, the protesters’ accusations against Israel echo Dr Wilf’s accusations against the Palestinian curriculum. Both parties are essentially saying the other is racist. In this sense, the dispute is characteristic of the insolubility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: negotiations between the two sides stalled in the spring of 2014. However, when the protesters say that Israel wants to liquidate the refugee issue, they are undisputedly right. This is exactly the goal that Dr Wilf has stated many times.
As a neutral party, UNRWA finds itself between a rock and a hard place, trying to balance both interests, while at the same time hoping to avoid accusations of partiality. In a reaction, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness says his organization is committed to using the host government’s curriculum, but added that “as the UN we strive to make sure that what we teach to children in our classrooms is in line with UN values”.