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The Palestinian school curriculum

In March 2020, there was a Westminster Hall debate on Radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum.

That debate arose after the Palestinian Authority (PA) started revising its primary and secondary school curricula in 2017.

There followed reports that the new textbooks promote radicalisation and that examples of incitement litter Palestinian textbooks.     

A report by the Israeli-based NGO IMPACT-SE (The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education) also raised concerns about the new textbooks. In 2018, the UK Government said it was very concerned about the reports and met with IMPACT-SE to investigate the issue further.

In 2017, the PA’s Minister for Education, Sabri Saidam, defended the curriculum, saying that contentious parts of the PA curriculum, including maps that don’t include Israel, and praise of so-called martyrs—many of whom are considered terrorists by Israel—derive from “the ripple effects” of the conflict.

The UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) which runs schools in Gaza and the West Bank has rejected criticisms of textbooks used in its schools. In 2017 it said that it had reviewed its textbooks rigorously and that its curriculum framework “aims to ensure that our curriculum is in line with UN values”.

The UK Government position

Critics argue that as the UK Government provides funds to the Palestinian Authority, it is in effect turning a blind eye to the accusations of radicalisation.

The UK has a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Palestinian Authority under which the PA must adhere to the principles of non-violence and respect for human rights. Under this MoU the Department for International Development (DFID) is required to take action when they do not.

(DFID was merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in September 2020, and the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will now have responsibility for the MoU)

The Government also maintained that it does not fund any textbooks or educational materials. Instead, UK aid to the Palestinian Authority contributes to the salaries of vetted teachers and education public servants in the West Bank.

In 2018, DFID reported that financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority had paid the salaries of up to 39,000 teachers, doctors, nurses, midwives and other health and education public servants in the West Bank.

This funding is largely paid through the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA).

Speaking in the Westminster Hall debate in 2020 Stephen Crabb said:

It is not good enough to be told that we are not funding these textbooks directly. The fact is that we are funding education in the Palestinian Territories. That is a good thing, if it is done well. We should own this issue and be more challenging of our friends in the Palestinian Authority, who, for whatever reason, try to make us believe there is not a serious issue here, when there is. 

In December 2018 DFID said that it had always been clear that it expects textbooks used by the Palestinian Authority to be academically rigorous and must not to incite racial hatred or violence under any circumstances. DFID said:

We have a regular dialogue with both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel in which we reiterate the need for both sides to prepare their populations for peaceful coexistence, including by promoting a more positive portrayal of each other.

The report on Palestinian textbooks

Background

In the Westminster Hall debate in 2020, the Minister, James Cleverley said the Government was funding an EU-sponsored review of PA textbooks by the Georg Eckert Institute:

the UK has led international efforts to get to the bottom of the situation with regard to the content in the Palestinian Authority textbooks. We funded the development work for the methodology of an independent review, which is sponsored by the European Union. That review by the specialist and respected Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research is under way.

He added that it was worth waiting for that report to “underpin the basis for our response to these concerns and our interaction with the Palestinian Authority.”

On 9 June, the Jerusalem Post reported that the European Commission has received the 200 page report from the Eckert Institute, but had not yet published it. It was due to be presented to the European Parliament first. On 22 February, responding to a written question, Foreign Office Minister James Cleverley said: “The UK has repeatedly lobbied the EU to push for publication, but this is ultimately a decision for the EU.” 

Some of the report’s findings were leaked in the German press. 

The findings of the report

The report was published on 18 June.

The summary of the report notes that:

The analysis revealed a complex picture: 1) the textbooks adhere to UNESCO standards and adopt criteria that are prominent in international education discourse, including a strong focus on human rights, 2) they express a narrative of resistance within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 3) they display an antagonism towards Israel.

Specifically it says that the textbooks “convey the concept of civil rights and the relationship between citizens and the state”; “affirm the importance of human rights in general and in several places explicitly highlight a universal notion of these rights […]

However the report notes that “this universal notion is, […] not carried through to a discussion of the rights of Israelis”; and that “when the textbooks mention human rights violations, in most cases these are carried out by Israeli protagonists and affect the rights of Palestinians.”

Representation of Israel

The report says the textbooks convey a one-sided representation of Israel. There are frequent references to the Zionist occupation. And, while there is reference to the founding of Israel,  “the recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security documented in the letters by Yasser Arafat to Yitzhak Rabin stands in contrast to the questioning of the legitimacy of the State of Israel expressed in other passages and textbooks.”

The report notes that representations of violence differ, depending on the subject of study. For example, Arabic language textbooks “contain emotionally laden depictions of Israeli violence that tend to dehumanise the Israeli adversary, occasionally accusing the latter of malice and deceitful behaviour.”

History, geography and social science textbooks “take a more conceptual approach, consistently placing the facts within the narrative of national resistance. The Israeli opponent is portrayed as aggressive and hostile. The language is however, for the most part, objective in tone and avoids inflammatory expressions.”

Changes since 2019

The report mainly focused on (159) textbooks produced between 2017 and 2019. It subsequently compared 18 textbooks released online in 2020 with earlier versions and found significant changes including “increased representation of female and Christian positions”; “a reduction in the text and images that have escalatory potential: including the alteration of a specific teaching unit that included anti-Semitic content by several significant changes of the narrative.”

The report also notes that textbooks produced for use in East Jerusalem by the Israeli authorities have removed “depictions of violence by Palestinians or Israelis” and contain “an idealisation of the coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians in the amended passages, with no mention of existing tensions.” It notes that “the removal of entire chapters on regional and Palestinian history fundamentally changes the national narrative.”

UN Relief Works Agency review

In 2021, UNRWA carried out its own review of teaching materials to help ensure online delivery of those materials was consistent with Un principles and values.

UNRWA reports:

to ensure that all educational materials provided to students are those which have been approved by the Agency as in line with UN principles and values, the Agency developed an innovative, secure Agency-wide self-learning platform which will contain all of the learning materials for all UNRWA students. Currently in its final review process, the platform will be launched in coming days. […]

UNRWA has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and for incitement to hatred and violence in its schools and in all of it operations. Any breach reported is dealt with firmly. The Agency adheres, in its education programme, to the highest standards of neutrality, humanity and tolerance.

The UK Government has expressed confidence in UNRWA’s review system.

FCDO uses a variety of tools to monitor UNRWA’s performance and ensure it continues to deliver quality services including via programme monitoring and annual assessments. UNRWA has a robust review system of each host country’s textbooks to ensure education in its schools reflects the values and principles of the UN. We accompany our support to UNRWA with stringent attention to implementation of their neutrality policy, including how they apply this to textbooks.

In April 2021, UNRWA won a British Council award for excellence in “preparing students to be responsible global citizens by embedding international education into their curriculums.”

Next steps

The Commission has said that it “takes this study seriously and will act on its findings as appropriate, with a view to bring about the full adherence to UNESCO standards in all Palestinian education materials.”

Responding to a Written Parliamentary Question on the report, the Government said:

We have been clear that incitement to hatred or violence is unacceptable from all parties and should have no place in education. This report on Palestinian textbooks highlights progress in key areas, but also indicates that anti-Israel content remains. We will continue to raise concerns about this with the Palestinian Authority, and continue to urge all parties to condemn incitement wherever and whenever it occurs.


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