UNRWA textbooks were pivotal in radicalizing generations of Gazans — watchdog

Education-monitoring group says UN agency allowed incitement to be taught in its schools, and argues that staff who took part in October 7 attack were not isolated ‘bad apples’

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Students sit in a classroom on the first day of the new school year at the United Nations-run Elementary School at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, August 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Illustrative: Students sit in a classroom on the first day of the new school year at the United Nations-run elementary school at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, August 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

A map of the Middle East in a geography book makes no mention of the State of Israel, showing “Palestine” in its place; a history book narrates a 1968 battle between the Israeli army, the Jordanians and Palestinian fedayeen, extolling the latter’s courage in wearing explosive belts, and praising the “image of a burnt Zionist soldier”; a chemistry book asks students to analyze the type of chemicals contained in phosphorous bombs allegedly dropped by Israel; an Islamic studies book describes the goals of jihad as “terrorizing the enemy” and “achieving martyrdom.”

These are examples from textbooks used in schools in Gaza run by the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA), as highlighted in a recent report compiled by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se). The organization, based in the UK and Israel, has since the late 1990s monitored school curricula around the world, with a particular focus on the Middle East.

For years, IMPACT-se has been sounding the alarm over what it says is anti-Israel incitement contained in Palestinian textbooks, including the systematic erasure of Israel’s existence and the glorification of violent jihad and martyrdom.

“The cooperation between UNRWA and Hamas is absolutely undeniable,” said Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se, “both in educating the terrorists that perpetrated the October 7 atrocities, and in being part, as we discovered afterwards, of the terror infrastructure in its schools and in its hospitals.”

Israel has said it has evidence that at least 12 UNRWA employees took “active part” in the October 7 massacres, that at least 30 more “assisted,” and that around 1,500 of the agency’s employees in Gaza (some 10 percent) have active ties to terror groups.

“The end result of that radicalization is that among the thousands who went over the border on October 7 and committed acts of murder, rape and abduction, it is statistically probable that the majority went to UNRWA’s schools,” Sheff said. “The UNRWA curriculum is what they were brought up on, and it teaches about jihad and martyrdom being the most important meanings of life, and that Jews are liars and frauds.”

Image from a textbook used in UNRWA schools in Gaza, describing the 1968 Battle of Karameh between the IDF and Palestinian fedayeen, glorifying terror attacks, May 2021. (IMPACT-se, courtesy)

Three distinct school systems — one message

In Gaza, around 70% of the population are considered refugees. Palestinians are unique in that, unlike any other group of refugees around the world, their refugee status is hereditary and is transferred by the UN automatically through the generations. All descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence are eligible for UNRWA services, including health and education.

The remaining 30% of the population of the Strip, native Gazans who are not descendants of refugees, attend government schools run by Hamas.

Per UNRWA’s policy, the organization’s schools teach the curriculum of the “host country” in the various Middle East nations and regions in which it operates. Since Gaza was under the administration of the Palestinian Authority until 2007  — until the PA was ousted by Hamas — the relief agency has historically used PA textbooks in both the West Bank and Gaza.

For years, IMPACT-se has issued reports scrutinizing those textbooks, in a bid to draw attention to anti-Israel incitement they contain.

The watchdog uncovered that PA teaching materials not only did not promote education toward a peaceful solution to the conflict, but denied the existence of the Jewish state. Israel was routinely left off maps, and Israeli cities were said to be in Palestine.

In addition, there was no mention of the Holocaust in history chapters on World War II, and Palestinian terrorists who massacred Israeli civilians were glorified.

A Grade 5 Arabic language book produced by the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry and adopted by UNRWA in its schools, glorifying Palestinian terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, a PLO member who participated in the 1978 Coastal Road massacre in Israel that resulted in the death of 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children (IMPACT-se, courtesy).

The curriculum produced by the PA has been adopted without compunction by UNRWA in Gaza and the West Bank for its schools.

“UNRWA, a UN agency, does not change any of the teaching material issued by the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that it doesn’t meet the standards of the United Nations on neutrality,” Sheff noted, “and has resisted calls to draw up a parallel curriculum for refugees in line with international educational standards.”

In certain cases, individual UNRWA schools in Gaza have produced supplementary materials that are “just as bad as the Palestinian Authority’s material,” Sheff said.

A recent report by his organization revealed that a school in Beit Hanoun, in northeastern Gaza, uploaded online self-evaluation exercises for ninth graders in which the correct answers to the question “What are the requirements for protecting society’s unity?” were “knowledge” and “weapons.”

The school also published a competition to research the “Nakba,” the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s establishment (literally “catastrophe”), with a goal to “envision the future of Palestine after return and liberation.”

Another online self-evaluation exercise for sixth graders on Islamic education violated UNRWA’s principle of religious neutrality in education, presenting the following statement as false: “A person’s belief is true even if he does not believe in the Prophet Muhammad.”

Students from UNRWA’s Boys Preparatory School in Bet Hanoun, Gaza Strip, April 2, 2023 (from the school’s Facebook page)

‘Not just bad apples’

Yusef Al-Hawajara was among the 3,000 terrorists that stormed across the border from Gaza into Israel on October 7. In a phone call he made that day, Al-Hawajara bragged to a friend: “We have female hostages, I captured one!” The Arabic term he used for the female hostages, sabaya, is often used by jihadis to mean sex slaves. “Everything’s fine, I hope,” he later said in the recording. “We will enter Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Al-Hawajara was a member of Hamas’s Central Camps Brigade. He was also a teacher at UNRWA’s Deir al-Balah Boys’ Elementary School in the central Gaza Strip. His double allegiance was not an isolated case.

“The UNRWA employees who took part in the massacre were not just bad apples. It was not a bug. It is a feature of the institution,” argued Sheff.

“UNRWA in Gaza is institutionally an organization that was riddled with Hamas ideas, with Hamas members, and by educating the majority of schoolchildren in Gaza, they have been at the very center of that radicalization process,” Sheff said.

IMPACT-se released a report in November revealing that at least 100 Hamas members who have carried out terror attacks against Israelis in recent years are graduates of the UNRWA education system.

“We see how much support for Hamas was expressed in social media of UNRWA employees. UNRWA is a UN organization; there is absolutely no excuse for the fact that this went on day after day, year after year, under everybody’s noses,” Sheff said.

“For us, the impact of this has been quite terrible, because we warned for years governments and parliaments that if UNRWA continued to teach this material in schools, about jihad and martyrdom, and the dehumanization of Jews and Israelis, something terrible is going to happen,” he added.

The commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

Change starts in the classroom

Multiple examples around the Middle East have shown that radical changes in the school curriculum are a viable solution to curtail extremism, Sheff said.

Textbooks in the United Arab Emirates, a country that signed a peace agreement with Israel in 2020, today promote peace and religious tolerance toward Jews, based on sources from the Quran and other religious texts. The curriculum also includes Holocaust education, as the Gulf country has moved to position itself as a regional peacemaker.

Even in Saudi Arabia, a large conservative Muslim country that does not yet have diplomatic ties with Israel, the portrayal of the Jewish state in textbooks has notably improved, and educational materials have become increasingly critical of radical and jihadi movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and ISIS.

Positive changes with regards to Israel and Jews have also been implemented in the curricula taught in Morocco and Egypt, Sheff noted.

The same deradicalizing approach could be easily applied to the Palestinian education system, he said.

“We are in touch with [many] policymakers in the US, in Europe, and in the Arab world. There’s a great deal of interest because it is absolutely understood that this is essential for [Palestinian] society moving forward. And unquestionably, that needs to be put into place as soon as possible.”

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