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US debunks UN claims of countering bias in Palestinian textbooks

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RON KAMPEAS

The April 2018 State Department report was declassified this week at the request of two Republican congressmen, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Lee Zeldin of New York. It covers the 2015-2017 period, and cites a review by UNRWA, the UN agency that delivers relief and education to Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA operates schools within the Palestinian Authority (PA) school system, and for the most part uses PA textbooks. The UNRWA review of Palestinian textbooks identified 203 issues covering a total of 229 pages (or 3.1%) out of 7 498 pages reviewed. The issues are examples of material that did not comport with UN values of tolerance, neutrality, equality, and non-discrimination, and human rights relating to race, gender language, and religion.

An annex detailing the problematic passages did not appear in the report posted by Zeldin and Perry, but the report said that “more than half of the neutrality/bias issues it found” were related to maps, the status of Jerusalem, and other cities, “for example, regional maps that exclude Israel, and refer to Israeli cities as Palestinian”. Other neutrality issues had to do with gender.

The UNRWA review did not find any cases of incitement, the report said.

The recent State Department report faults UNRWA and a previous State Department report for saying that the refugee agency had successfully disseminated complementary materials, and had completed teacher training aimed at countering the bias.

UNRWA, whose duties include running a school system, developed alternate materials and training to counter the biased material, but it was not extensively used, in part because of Palestinian objections to the UNRWA corrective measures.

Palestinian teachers also refused to attend training sessions during a strike because of teacher-union reactions to the material, and the Palestinian Authority suspending ties with UNRWA over its issuance of the complementary materials. The report did not say what the objections were by the Palestinian Authority and the teacher unions.

IMPACT-se, an Israeli nongovernmental organisation that monitors alleged radicalisation in Palestinian education, played up the report’s criticism of claims that UNRWA had taken steps to counter the bias.

“The release of this report puts to rest the myth that UNRWA is teaching an alternative, less radical curriculum to the children in its care,” IMPACT-se Chief Executive Marcus Sheff said. “The report clearly states that while UNRWA may have created complementary materials in an attempt to cover up some of the hate in the PA curriculum, these materials never saw the light of day. They were not distributed, nor were teachers instructed in their use.”

The Trump administration last year ended US assistance to UNRWA, saying the agency’s perpetuation of refugee status for Palestinians and their descendants was an obstacle to peace. The $364 million (R4.9 billion) that the US had contributed was nearly 30% of its overall budget, and UNRWA officials said the cuts could precipitate a crisis in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed the cessation of funding, although Israeli security officials are concerned that it could destabilise the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority provides all but English textbooks to the UNRWA schools, part of its contribution to the agency. UNRWA spends less than 1% of its education expenditure on textbooks.

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