Palestinian employee of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) hold a sign during a protest against a US decision to cut aid, in Gaza City January 29, 2018. (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem).
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)
Last Thursday, immediately after a motion in support of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) was approved by the European Parliament in Strasbourg, UNRWA jubilantly tweeted, “Second largest democratic parliament in the world reaffirms commitment to UNRWA. The European Parliament unanimously stands with Palestine refugees.”
UNRWA’s triumphalism was jarring. It exposed not only a self-serving oversimplification of the situation, but also a wholesale disregard for the concerns rightfully raised about its work. In particular the promotion of hatred, extremism, violence and conflict in UNRWA schools.
A recent world tour by UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl to drum up financial support following a US freeze on funds to the organization relied heavily on an accompanying PR slogan, “#QualityEducation is key to a better future.”
No doubt it is. But Palestinian children are not receiving it.
The 500,000 children taught at UNRWA schools across the West Bank, Gaza and in east Jerusalem all study the new Palestinian Authority school curriculum, completed by the PA Education Ministry in August 2017.
Our report on the accompanying textbooks and examples demonstrates that radicalization is pervasive in this new curriculum, even more so than its predecessor. Quite simply, the new textbooks groom young Palestinians to sacrifice themselves as martyrs.
These are schoolbooks which promote hate, encourage a commitment to jihad and feature a radical Islamist, and occasionally Salafist, worldview. Young Palestinians are taught that martyrdom for boys and girls is a life goal, that dying is better than living and that jihad is the pinnacle of ambition. Those who risk their lives by taking up arms are praised and those who choose the path of non-violence are denigrated as cowards.
Science and math lessons are used to teach violence. Newtonian gravity is taught through the image of a boy with a slingshot targeting soldiers, to explain power, mass, and tensile strength, while math exercises instruct students to calculate number of martyrs in Palestinian uprisings and teach probability with examples of Israelis shooting at passing Palestinian cars.
UNRWA is firmly in denial about the curriculum it teaches. But those who finance UNRWA should not be. In 2017, the US gave $364 million, equivalent to a third of the UNRWA budget. The EU came in second at $143m. Germany followed at $76m. Then Sweden at $61m. and the UK at $60m. (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states combined represented just 7% of UNRWA’s budget). These countries are receiving a damaging return on their very significant investment.
After all, the benchmarks are clear. The UN has a roadmap for UNRWA. Through another of its bodies, UNESCO, several resolutions have set out clear standards on textbooks. They are expected to promote peace and tolerance. They are mandated to encourage respect for the “other” and peacemaking as the tool for resolving conflict and gender inequality. They are to include unbiased information and exclude hateful material.
The new PA curriculum fails miserably on every count. It fails to respect tolerance, nor is there any understanding toward the Israeli and Western “other.” Instead, there is demonization. The principle of “no hate” is thoroughly rejected – the curriculum is packed with wording, imagery and ideology likely to create prejudices, misconceptions, stereotypes, misunderstandings, mistrust, racial and national hatred, and religious bigotry.
And by no measure can the information presented in the curriculum be viewed as unbiased. In fact, students are indoctrinated, with the world divided into a Manichean paradigm, a simplistic binary choice between good and evil. There is little or no complexity, empathy or real understanding of historical development. As for gender equality, while some secular topics in the curriculum include respect for women’s choice, in the religious and jihadist elements, women are not equal in life, only in their value as martyrs in death.
At last week’s European Parliament plenary session to discuss UNRWA, commissioner Johannes Hahn said that “The European Union is convinced that the two-state solution is the only possible answer if we want to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Absolutely. But with respect to that most important of UNESCO standards – peacemaking as the way to resolve conflict – the PA curriculum rejects negotiations with Israel to achieve Palestinian statehood. According to the textbooks being read by half a million Palestinian children, the only solution available is victory via resistance, jihad, radical Islamism and defeating Israel once and for all.
Outside the plenary session itself, in the flowery-carpeted bar where legislators, staff and lobbyists mingle, a ray of hope could be found. Some parliamentary members were openly challenging the work of UNRWA. Meanwhile, several legislators from the centrist and liberal factions were also quietly questioning the UNRWA approach. For many in the European mainstream, openly challenging UNRWA remains a step too far. But this must quickly change, for the sake of the very people UNRWA is mandated to help. UNRWA is a vital UN agency providing essential services to Palestinians. But right now, it is betraying itself, its donors and most importantly, the 500,000 Palestinian children it serves.The author is CEO of IMPACT-se.