Will the US take responsibility for UNRWA? - opinion

How much longer can UNRWA get away with this is entirely up to its donors, because clearly the situation is and never has been fully under their control.

 AN UNRWA ELEMENTARY school for boys in the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: Ahmad Khateib/Flash90)
AN UNRWA ELEMENTARY school for boys in the Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: Ahmad Khateib/Flash90)

An international ministerial conference convened this week in Brussels to support UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. Considering that the organization’s stubborn unwillingness to remove antisemitism and incitement in textbooks has by now become synonymous with the organization, we can only assume that these inconvenient truths will not feature high on the agenda.

Textbook incitement was however very much on the agenda last week in London, where UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini flew in as part of a last-ditch effort to try and convince the UK government to reverse its decision to cut funding for the organization by more than half.

The awareness of the international community to the prevalence of antisemitism and incitement in textbooks used in UNRWA schools has become increasingly apparent in recent months. In June, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, while testifying at the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate, called out UNRWA for antisemitism in textbooks and underscored his determination that UNRWA reform its textbooks.

In September, European Union parliamentarians publicly challenged the UNRWA chief regarding the textbooks in a parliamentary debate, leading to his public acknowledgment that UNRWA themselves identified antisemitism and glorification of terrorism in textbooks they use. In April, the European Parliament passed an unprecedented resolution becoming the first legislature to admonish UNRWA for their teaching of hate and incitement to violence. Other donor nations also launched investigations into UNRWA, including Australia and Canada, where the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed a resolution expressing concern over UNRWA educational materials.

The issue of UNRWA’s educational materials was brought to the fore with the publication of two IMPACT-se reports in January and February 2021 respectively. These contained the first-ever comprehensive audit of material produced, approved and distributed by UNRWA staff. It revealed that UNRWA-produced content contained blatant antisemitism, incitement to jihad and martyrdom and delegitimization of Israel.

 UNRWA employees take part in a sit-in demonstration, according to them against anticipated austerity measures within the organization, in Amman, Jordan November 8, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/JEHAD SHELBAK) UNRWA employees take part in a sit-in demonstration, according to them against anticipated austerity measures within the organization, in Amman, Jordan November 8, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/JEHAD SHELBAK)

One would imagine that UNRWA is getting weary of dealing with this issue. And yet, the penny has yet to drop. Instead of addressing them with the seriousness they deserve, UNRWA displays a remarkable sense of entitlement, with the UNRWA commissioner-general publicly calling efforts for textbook reform, “political attacks.”

Across the Middle East and North Africa, leaders are implementing changes to their school textbooks, recognizing that ending radicalization, intolerance, and isolationism in education is key to their national interests and visions for the future.

Clearly, this does not apply to all, or even most countries in the region. But this trend should not be seen as insignificant in a part of the world where extremist education has been used as a driver of violence, war, hate and intolerance for decades, so much of which is directed at Jews and Israel.

UNRWA unfortunately, is not having any of it. Despite employing a staff of 30,000, and exclusively focused on the Palestinian issue, it appears to be incapable of addressing the most pressing challenge to its mandate today, namely the ongoing teaching of hate and violence within its schools. For scale, the other UN organization focused on refugees is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which holds a mandate for 135 countries and a staff of 17,000. Lest anyone think the conflicts they focus on are less challenging, these have included providing education and other critical services to refugees from places such as Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Venezuela.

So why exactly is this massive UN agency whose espoused values include accountability, shirking its commitment to promote ideals of peacemaking and tolerance through education? It appears that even negative impacts on its revenue stream aren’t enough to encourage UNRWA to correct its path.

One answer might be that it is often hard to delineate where the responsibilities of the Palestinian Authority end and those of UNRWA begin. For instance, UNRWA actively lobbied members of the European Parliament this year on a provision that affected the PA alone, and not UNRWA in any way. When exactly UNRWA became a lobbying organization is unclear, but it appears they have resources to expand when it comes to pushing for legislation that supports the PA.

UNRWA claims that the choice is binary – either it teaches what amounts to a curriculum of hate or there will be no schooling at all. This kind of straw man argument and false binary, ignores the most obvious option of reforming textbooks and instituting a curriculum of peace and tolerance for Palestinian children.

Our research showed that UNRWA’s own teachers, ostensibly trained in human rights and neutrality standards, created study cards filled with violent language and the glorification of militants. In response to the IMPACT-se report, UNRWA took the inadequate step of acknowledging, the following day, that “some” of the curriculum was “not in line with UN values.”

In a remarkable piece for Foreign Policy last week, Yardena Schwartz went to an UNRWA school in Shuafat, in east Jerusalem, where she was invited to observe at UNRWA’s invitation. She was promptly kicked out when she asked to speak with students about textbook content. Outside the school, she asked students if they were taught about martyrs, something UNRWA has repeatedly denied. She was told by a fifth grade student that her class had just learned about Dalal al-Mughrabi, the perpetrator of the 1978 Coastal Road Massacre. “They taught us that she is a hero,” Schwartz reported the fifth grader saying. She similarly asked a ninth grade student what she had learned at school about peace. “We are taught to defend Palestine, so there can be no two-state solution,” was the student’s disturbing, but unsurprising answer.

Looking beyond the PA and with an eye toward Gaza, it is similarly unclear there too where UNRWA ends and Hamas begins. The hapless Matthias Schmale, formerly UNRWA’s Gaza chief, was driven out of his job by Hamas for saying on TV that Israel used sophisticated methods to avoid civilian casualties during the most recent May escalation. The fact that a terror organization has such power to exert influence over who heads a UN organization is beyond troubling.

As our research indicated back in January, the assurances coming from UNRWA’s headquarters in Geneva are not aligned with the facts on the ground. How much longer can UNRWA get away with this is entirely up to its donors, because clearly the situation is and never has been fully under their control.

The US is now the most significant supporter of UNRWA, having recently restored $318 million in annual aid, 60% of which will go toward education. Its responsibility to demand change to the textbooks UNRWA teaches is manifest. Its leverage is clear. The US simply cannot stand idle while its taxpayer dollars are used to teach children the world’s oldest form of hatred, weaponized in incitement to violence. Perhaps it will be the US that ultimately saves UNRWA from itself.

The writer is CEO of The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se).