Hamas bashes UNRWA’s human rights curriculum

‘Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and the Magna Carta are all alien to our culture,’ says education ministry spokesman

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinian children attend a class at the UNRWA elementary school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, in April 2013 (Illustrative photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinian children attend a class at the UNRWA elementary school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, in April 2013 (Illustrative photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)

The Hamas government in Gaza accused a UN agency on Tuesday of unlawfully printing and disseminating school textbooks dealing with human rights in a way that offends Palestinian cultural sensitivities.

Education ministry spokesman Mu’tasim Al-Minawi said that UNRWA, a UN agency tasked with providing work and education to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, had presented three textbooks on human rights for grades seven to nine for review in 2012, but the books were rejected by the ministry. Hamas suggested a series of amendments, but UNRWA only fixed 30-40 percent of them, Al-Minawi said.

When the education ministry decided to publish its own textbooks on the subject, it found that UNRWA had already printed its “flawed” books and distributed them to students without coordinating with the ministry.

“UNRWA is acting like a state within a state,” Al-Minawi said in a press release. “It must understand the limits of its authority; that it is bound by the curriculum taught in its areas of activity.”

It was not the first time Hamas clashed with UNRWA for introducing school curriculum not to its liking. In 2009, the movement — which took control of the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup two years earlier — refused to allow the introduction of a course on the Holocaust for the eighth grade in UNRWA schools.

Elders group delegates former Irish president Mary Robinson (L), Indian activist Ela Bhatt (2nd R) and former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during a visit to an UN school in Deir Al-balah refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on October 16, 2010 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Elders group delegates: former Irish president Mary Robinson (R) and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during a visit to a UN school at Dir El-Balah refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, October 16, 2010 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

UNRWA runs 245 schools in the Gaza Strip, educating 232,384 pupils, nearly half of the total number of schools in the Gaza Strip. Approximately 1.2 million of Gaza’s residents are registered with UNRWA as refugees, out of a total population estimated at 1.7 million.

Al-Minawi detailed the reasons for his ministry’s objection to the UN curriculum. First, he argued, the curriculum was “completely detached from the reality of an Arab Muslim Palestinian student.”

“The vast majority of examples [in the books] refer to [Mahatma] Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Helen Suzman, the Soweto Uprising, the Magna Carta and Apartheid, even though Islamic-Arab-Palestinian alternatives exist,” Al-Minawi said. “There are many models which could be used which are closer to the students’ understanding.”

The Palestinian narrative was also marginalized in the books, Al-Minawi complained; presented in a “superficial” and “distorted” way. For instance, the reason given for the Nakba, or Palestinian “catastrophe” of the inception of Israel, was the Ottoman alliance with the Germans in World War I rather than “the Zionist occupier.”

But perhaps worst of all, the books focused on “peaceful resistance as the only way of achieving freedom and independence.” The entire eighth grade curriculum, Al-Minawi lamented, is “not dedicated to human rights but to domesticate the psyche of the Palestinian pupil, fostering negative feelings toward armed resistance.”

‘UNRWA is acting like a state within a state,’ Al-Minawi said in a press release

A press release posted on the education ministry’s website on Tuesday called on UNRWA to stop teaching its current human rights curriculum and recall the books distributed. It also called on all teachers “loyal to the nation and with live consciences” to refuse to teach the material, which it said “contaminates the minds of our dear students.”

But the UN agency refused to heed Hamas’s call, stating that it will continue teaching the same curriculum.

“UNRWA has no plans to change its education programs in Gaza,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA told The Times of Israel in a written response. Gunness noted that human rights are taught in all UNRWA schools from grades 1 through 9, discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“UNRWA’s education system takes as its basis the curriculum taught by the PA and so we use PA textbooks in preparing children in Gaza for public examinations,” he added.

“In addition, we enrich our education programs in Gaza with an agreed human rights curriculum which has been developed with the communities we serve: with educationalists, parents groups, teachers associations, staff members and others. We have done our utmost in developing these materials to be sensitive to local values while also being true to the universal values that underpin the work of the United Nations.”

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