UNRWA textbooks draw European censure

May 11, 2021 | Judy Maynard

A flag map of the Middle East inside an UNRWA-produced textbook shows a blank space on Israel’s territory (Source: IMPACT-se)
A flag map of the Middle East inside an UNRWA-produced textbook shows a blank space on Israel’s territory (Source: IMPACT-se)

In a step hailed as “unprecedented”, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has been censured by the European Parliament (EP) for the use of school textbooks that contain hate speech and incitement to violence.

The European Parliament (EP) on 28 April became the first legislature to adopt a resolution expressing concern “about the hate speech and violence taught in Palestinian school textbooks and used in schools by UNRWA” and “about the effectiveness of UNRWA’s mechanisms of adherence to UN values” in its educational materials.

The resolution, contained in the text of the EP’s annual budget discharge, called for EU funding for salaries paid to teachers and public servants in the education sector to “be made conditional on educational material and course content complying with UNESCO standards of peace, tolerance, coexistence, and non-violence.”

The EP also requires UNRWA to act transparently and publish all its educational materials in an open-source platform so as to ensure that their content “adheres to UN values and does not encourage hatred.”

Between 2016 and 2020 the EU transferred around 1 billion euros (A$1.56 billion) to the Palestinian education sector.

Australia, for its part, will contribute $10 million to UNRWA in 2020-21, down from $20 million in 2019-20 (for more on Australian funding to UNRWA, see here).


UNRWA’s Educational Materials

Under its mandate UNRWA does not produce its own curricula but uses the curricula and textbooks of the “host country”. The Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum is taught in 370 schools run by UNRWA in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

UNRWA states it cannot alter problematic content in the PA textbooks as this would impede Palestinian “national sovereignty”, but claims to review the curriculum and provide additional material in those areas not complying with UN values. It does not, however, explain how this is implemented or distributed.

The EP resolution’s adoption followed publication of research by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, or IMPACT-se, an organisation which monitors educational content and compares it against international standards on peace and tolerance derived from UNESCO declarations and resolutions.

IMPACT-se’s report titled “Review of UNRWA-Produced Study Materials in the Palestinian Territories”, published in January 2021, examined materials produced by UNRWA to facilitate at-home learning between March and September 2020.

The report contains example after example of the insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad into Palestinian textbooks across all grades and subjects, including even maths and science. It found that the curriculum was imbued with extreme nationalist and Islamist ideologies, and lacked any material on the historical Jewish presence in today’s Israel and Palestinian territories, or on positive portrayals of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Here is a very small sample:

  • UNRWA-produced Grade 5 Arabic language material refers directly to a text originally appearing in a PA textbook praising Palestinian militant figures, such as Izz al-Din al-Qassam and Dalal Mughrabi, as positive role models. The former, after whom terrorist organisation Hamas’ armed wing is named, preached jihad against both the Zionists and the British during the Mandate period. Mughrabi took part in a 1978 massacre that took the lives of 38 civilians, 13 of them children, and wounded more than 70.
  • An UNRWA booklet teaching Arabic numerals to third-graders directs them to a specific exercise in a PA maths textbook in which they must choose from a list the correct number of martyrs in the First Intifada.
  • UNRWA Arabic language material for Grade 6 uses violent and militaristic imagery, such as teaching nouns like jihad to make a sentence.
  • UNRWA content asks Grade 7 students to read a poem written during the First Intifada, and to identify the main theme – which is that “a raging fire awaits the Occupation.”
  • A ninth-grade Social Studies booklet produced by UNRWA accuses Israel of deliberately polluting Palestinian territories, stealing, and spreading disease by dumping radioactive and toxic waste. Economic ties between the Israeli and Palestinian economies are depicted as a measure intended to weaken the Palestinians.

The report concluded: “The unavoidable impression is that UNRWA, as a UN organization, knowingly teaches material that is inconsistent with UN values in its Gaza Strip and West Bank schools. In addition, UNRWA’s lack of transparency to address such problematic issues make it impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts.”

IMPACT-se director Marcus Sheff stated, “UNRWA is complicit in radicalizing schoolchildren through the glorification of terrorists, encouragement to violence and teaching of blood libels to Palestinian schoolchildren.”

Last year, the European Parliament had passed three resolutions condemning the Palestinian Authority for teaching hate and violence in schools.

This followed many years of criticism regarding the indoctrination of Palestinian schoolchildren.


Why the EP move is surprising

Israeli academic Shany Mor notes that European political leaders have traditionally treated all discussions of Palestinian incitement with scepticism, or dismissed it as nothing more than pro-Israel “spin”, but these recent resolutions on UNRWA are a sign that “attitudes are shifting.” He goes on to say:

The resolution reflects two trends in European engagement with the Palestinian issue. First, the Europeans are increasingly concerned about anti-Israel and antisemitic incitement in Palestinian educational materials. They are also troubled by the use of European aid money to fund activities that encourage violence or terrorism by Palestinian factions.

Second, policymakers in Europe are finally beginning to ask tough questions about the kind of organization UNRWA is and whether it is facilitating peace at all. UNRWA’s corruption, its mismanagement, its turning a blind eye to the misuse of its facilities by terrorist organizations, and especially its anti-peace educational materials are now on the agendas of the EP as well as an increasing number of actors in European domestic politics.


UNRWA Caught out

The response of both UNRWA and the PA has been denial.

Following the release of the IMPACT-se report in January, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini did admit that there were “inappropriate pages from textbooks,” but he said they were “mistakenly distributed”, and that UNRWA had “acted quickly to remedy the situation”.

UNRWA also issued a statement claiming “a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and for incitement to hatred and violence in its schools and in all of its operations. Any breach reported is dealt with firmly. The Agency adheres, in its education program, to the highest standards of neutrality, humanity and tolerance.”

The agency claimed to have rectified all issues by November 2020.

Unfortunately for UNRWA, IMPACT-se published a follow-up report in February 2021, which examined UNRWA material dated November 2020 to January 2021.

The second report found that:

contrary to UNRWA’s claims, it continues to distribute content on online platforms that is not compliant with UN values. …Many of the same themes which were identified in the materials from March through September were also present in the more recent study cards, including the omission of peacemaking and non-violent conflict resolution.

Among the examples which run counter to UN values and international standards was a spelling exercise which teaches 9th graders to condemn Arab-Israeli peace and normalization initiatives and claim they only serve to weaken the resolve of Palestinians. This passage, which also extolls violent resistance, appears to be an UNRWA innovation not derived from the Palestinian Authority (PA) textbooks. While not mentioning by name, the timing and context of this lesson suggest it is in reference to the Abraham Accords, though it may also refer to peace agreements between Israel and Jordan or Egypt. In either interpretation, staff of a UN organization are effectively teaching lessons which contradict one of the main tenets of the UN Charter, the peaceful resolution of disputes.


PA Denial

Notwithstanding the findings of this second report, in April, days before the EP resolution was adopted, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh was still insisting there was no problem, and appeared to attempt to justify the incitement. Appearing before the EP’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in a meeting to exchange views, he was asked by EP member Miriam Lexmann what programs were in place to eliminate prejudice and to support friendly relations with Israel. She noted that the school curricula, including materials paid for by EU taxpayers via UNRWA, incited hatred amongst young Palestinians.

Shtayyeh claimed this information was “outdated”, and that textbooks were reviewed and revised each year. Moreover, he maintained that they contained no incitement, and implied that the issue was merely one of competing historical narratives.

As he put it, “When we say that refugees have the right to return to their homes, some people might think that this is a delegitimisation of Israel… What shall I tell (refugees)… that you are there for a picnic, or you are there as tourists, living in refugee camps in miserable conditions? …What is our narrative about refugees? That these people were pushed out of their homes by Israel and they have been living in refugee camps since then…So please be fair. Our narrative is our narrative, and the Israelis can have their own narrative.” What is in the PA textbooks, he asserted, fully abided by international law and UN resolutions.

This is untrue, but Shtayyeh’s dissembling is nothing new. An explicit example of the UN repudiating part of this Palestinian “narrative” was its disassociation from a community centrenamed in honour of terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, which a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General said was offensive, condemning the “glorification of terrorism”, and calling for an end to incitement to violence and hatred as an obstacle to peace.


Even the UN acknowledges the problem

Moreover, even other elements of the UN – itself the source of endless discriminatory anti-Israel resolutions – have previously called out the egregious content of Palestinian textbooks. In 2019, its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern “about the existence of hate speech in certain media outlets, especially those controlled by Hamas, social media, public officials’ statements and school curricula and textbooks, which fuels hatred and may incite violence, particularly hate speech against Israelis, which at times also fuels antisemitism.”

CERD urged the PA to combat hate speech and incitement to violence, and remove derogatory comments and images from school curricula and textbooks that perpetuate prejudices and hatred.

So now even normally Palestinian-friendly bodies like the EP and CERD are acknowledging and acting on IMPACT-se’s finding that UNRWA-produced material is “rife with problematic content that contradicts stated UN values. The material is characterized by an unambiguous adoption of the Palestinian and the Pan-Arab nationalist narrative, completely abandoning any façade of UN-mandated neutrality; an unapologetic attempt to erase and delegitimize Israel, a UN member state, and to a large extent the Jewish people as well; multiple occurrences of unfounded, incendiary conspiracy theories that stoke hostility; and the encouragement of violent conflict resolution, with no equivalent encouragement of peacemaking.”

These acknowledgements are a very positive development – if only a first step. Pervasive incitement to hatred, rejectionism and violence in Palestinian society is a key reason Israeli-Palestinian peace has proven so elusive. The last thing the international community should be doing is paying to spread such incitement to Palestinian children through UNRWA. Getting the world to acknowledge the severity of this problem is half the battle.


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