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Israel takes its attacks on UNRWA schools to the United Nations

Israeli ambassador to the UN accuses its Relief and Works Agency of using curricula inciting against Israel, the latest move in a long campaign against the body
Palestinian children fly kites at a school belonging to UNRWA in Gaza City on 12 March 2018 as a protest against US aid cuts (AFP)
By Aseel Jundi in Jerusalem

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, has claimed that textbooks used by schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugess in the Near East (UNRWA) contained inciteful content.

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In discussion with UNRWA's chief, Philippe Lazzarini, Erdan said that the agency was allowing an infrastructure of incitement in its facilities, including in its school curricula. 

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The ambassador demanded that the UN agency “end the incitement and antisemitism in UNRWA schools and publicly pledge to eliminate any terrorist infrastructure in its buildings”.

Erdan claimed that UNRWA did not attempt to integrate Palestinian refugees within the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) jurisdiction, nor in Arab states hosting them, hence prolonging the conflict and therefore had no “legitimacy to exist”.

For over 70 years, UNRWA has played an integral part in the lives of Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries by providing essential services such as education, health care and employment.

In response to Erdan, Lazzarini said that UNRWA was working on developing a programme that would examine the content of curricula taught in Palestinian schools and would submit its findings and recommendations to the heads of the agency.

Over 700 schools

An UNRWA spokesman, Sami Mshasha, said that Lazzarini’s comments had been taken out of context by Israeli media, saying that any issue facing the agency was reviewed within UNRWA’s working protocol.

Mshasha added that a periodic review of curricula was done in coordination with high-level officials in the Palestinian Ministry of Education.

This had not been the first time that Israel had targeted UNRWA in regards to the contents of curricula, Mshasha said.

“There are think tanks, researchers and specialists whose aim is to undermine the agency," he told Middle East Eye.

“At times they try to question the neutrality of the agency and its staff. At others they attack the curricula taught at the agency’s schools, especially in the Palestinian territories, claiming that it contains material promoting incitement, hate and discrimination, which is not correct.”

According to Mshasha, based on an agreement signed with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), UNRWA must use the curriculum of host states. 

UNRWA Palestinian students protests
Palestinian pupils protest in front of a school administered by UNRWA in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank on 25 September 2018, two weeks after the US cut aid to the agency (AFP)

Just as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan would study these countries' curricula, refugees in the Palestinian occupied territories would follow the PA’s curriculum. 

“Since UNRWA is an international organisation committed to neutrality, once it happens to find elements in the curriculum that do not comply with the laws and guidelines of the UN, such elements will be reconsidered regardless of how small they are.”

UNRWA runs 711 schools in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, with over half a million students, including 238,000 students in Gaza, 96,000 in the West Bank and 2,000 in East Jerusalem.

Hinting at double-standards, Mshasha pointed to elements of hate and discrimination in the Israeli school curriculum that were not being questioned.

The spokesman also rejected Erdan’s claim that armed movements such as Hamas were using UNRWA’s facilities for “terror purposes”, saying that the agency worked incessantly with all parties to respect its privileges and immunity and acted promptly when dealing with violations.


Over the years, Israeli authorities have repeatedly targeted the Palestinian educational system. 

In February 2019, Israel rolled out plans to shut down two schools in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem and replace them with schools operated by the Jerusalem municipality, using the curriculum of Israel’s education ministry.

'We must thoroughly consider the fate of students going to UNRWA schools in light of the acute shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem'
- Dima Samman, head of the Jerusalem Affairs Unit

Months earlier, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, had suspended $65m in funding to UNRWA - which comprised half of the agency’s funding - leading to severe shortages of staff and resources in Palestinian schools. 

According to Dima Samman, head of the Jerusalem Affairs Unit at the Palestinian education ministry, accusations such as Erdan’s are not new and they fell within the framework of the Israeli authorities’ plans targeting education in East Jerusalem since its occupation in 1967.

In May 2018, after decades of neglect, the Israeli government decided to invest 450 million shekels ($133m) in education in East Jerusalem.

But most of the money was allocated to improving technology and Hebrew classes and towards convincing public municipality schools to switch to the Israeli curriculum.

At the time, Zaid al-Qiq, a teacher at a private school and a researcher on education, told MEE that the Israeli government had already been trying to convince Palestinian parents and their children to study at municipality schools following an Israeli curriculum. 

Samman said that all Palestinian students had the right to learn their national curriculum endorsed by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and warned against Israeli plans aimed at closing UNRWA’s schools.

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“If UNRWA’s schools in East Jerusalem are closed and the flag is removed, this means a practical application of [Donald] Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is not an occupied city but the capital of Israel,” she said, in reference to the US president’s decision in 2017.

“We must thoroughly consider the fate of students going to UNRWA schools in light of the acute shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem, which paves the way for Jerusalemite students to join schools adopting the Israeli curriculum in the city.”

Samman noted a constant Israeli interference in the contents of the Palestinian curriculum, with authorities reviewing all the textbooks, including in mathematics. In one such example, authorities removed maths problems which used numbers of Palestinian refugees and refugee camps.

In the past, Israeli authorities would remove contents of a page they disapproved of, Samman said. Today they took out the contents and replaced them with misleading information that was not compatible with the lessons.

Samman insisted that the PA’s curriculum had been carefully reviewed and that its textbooks were balanced and did not contain elements of incitement.

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