Palestinian PM, UNRWA head meet to discuss school impasse

Discussion follows PA Education Ministry suspending ties with UN agency in dispute over how Israel is portrayed in curriculum

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinian children at a school in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian children at a school in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has met with the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in a bid to end a dispute over modifications to the way Israel is portrayed in the Palestinian educational curriculum.

The meeting with Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl on Monday came just three days after the PA’s Education Ministry announced it was suspending ties with UNRWA over reported plans by the international agency to soften Israel’s image in its curriculum, calling the plan an “affront to the Palestinian people, its history and struggles.”

UNRWA has over 312,000 students in its schools across the West Bank and East Jerusalem (together, 50,000) and the Gaza Strip (262,000).

The UN agency has not formally published any plans to alter its curriculum, but leaks to the Arab press of possible modifications to the curriculum led to outrage in recent weeks in Gaza and the West Bank.

During the meeting Krahenbuhl “addressed recent public misrepresentations of the matter,” according to a statement by UNRWA published on its website.

A girl holds a snack at a school, during the visit of Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), background left, in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, April 12, 2015. (AP Photo)
Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of UNRWA (background left) visits a school in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, April 12, 2015. (AP)

Krahenbuhl said UNRWA has a policy of teaching the educational curricula of host countries in its schools and this includes the Palestinian curriculum.

“This includes the Palestinian Authority’s curriculum and the Commissioner-General clarified that UNRWA has no intention of changing this practice,” the statement said.

However, the statement said, “It has long been UNRWA’s practice to review newly issued textbooks and to produce enriching teaching material, which concerns a limited percentage of the content to ensure consistency with UN values and international agreements.”

This would be done in consultation with the PA “and in full recognition of the right of Palestinian students to learn about their identity, history and culture.”

This “enriching” material is provided by UNRWA to teachers in its schools that can be used in cases where content in a host country’s textbook is deemed not up to par with UN standards.

So, for example, if a PA textbook has a math question that asks elementary school students to solve a question about the number of “martyrs” in the Second Intifada, UNRWA material might have an alternative question for teachers to use in that case.

Despite the suspension of ties, the UNRWA statement said the two sides agreed on a follow-up meeting between UNRWA and the PA Education Ministry.

UNRWA has not published any planned modifications. But according to Arab media reports, they include revisions to maps of Palestine to exclude references to cities inside Israel as Palestinian cities, a practice that critics have labeled as “incitement.”

Other changes were reportedly planned to tone down praise for Palestinian prisoners and improve Israel’s image.

According to a March report by COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — the Israeli Defense Ministry agency responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank and Gaza — “UNRWA … sought to amend textbooks in cases where the content showed gender bias, lacked objectivity, and incited violence against Israel.”

The Israeli government, the US State Department, and independent organizations have for many years accused the Palestinian education system, including UNRWA schools, of educating Palestinian children to hate Israel and support violence.

Palestinian teachers at a government school in Gaza City on September 13, 2014 (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Palestinian teachers at a government school in Gaza City on September 13, 2014 (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

COGAT praised the proposed changes as an effort “to create a balanced, positive curriculum with universal values free from violence and incitement.”

A report published earlier this month by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), said that the 2016-2017 elementary school curriculum in the PA “teaches students to be martyrs, demonizes and denies the existence of Israel, and focuses on a ‘return’ to an exclusively Palestinian homeland.”

The Israeli government has long argued that incitement in Palestinian textbooks is a main contributor to terrorism against Israelis. The issue has taken on increasing significance of late, as members of the United States Congress have threatened to decrease aid to Palestinians if incitement is not curbed.

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