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UNRWA disassociates itself from its own teaching program in Gaza

The U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency chooses to obfuscate a mountain of evidence that exposes its shocking lack of oversight.

Boys raise their hands at a U.N. school in the Gaza Strip, September 2011. Credit: U.N. Photo/Shareef Sarhan.
Boys raise their hands at a U.N. school in the Gaza Strip, September 2011. Credit: U.N. Photo/Shareef Sarhan.
IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff. Courtesy.
Marcus Sheff

Last Friday, the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA issued a statement in response to IMPACT-se’s report from earlier this month, claiming that the material cited in the report was forged by a private commercial website using the agency’s logo and the names of UNRWA educators.

The UNRWA-branded material analyzed in the report includes 590 pages in 30 documents across at least six freely available open-source platforms, spanning six separate grades. They all bear the UNRWA logo and its name in Arabic. The materials list UNRWA staff, six of whom are supervisors and inspectors, as well as 49 teachers affiliated with over 30 UNRWA schools in three verified UNRWA school districts, who helped to write and supervise the documents in question.

However, UNRWA expects people to believe that a single commercial website forged its logo and many hundreds of pages across six grades of exams, drill cards and supplementary materials, all of which include the names of dozens of teachers and schools, as well as verified education districts listed on the UNRWA-branded content. The reality is that, for years, these types of materials have been routinely used in UNRWA schools, reaching many thousands of children.

UNRWA’s claims clearly do not stand up to scrutiny, given the many different platforms which possess the material. The idea that this extensive documentation, all branded and prepared by UNRWA staff, is forged, is bizarre and certainly not credible.

The agency’s assertion that the material identified by IMPACT-se’s team of researchers is “not authorized” to be taught in schools provides further evidence of a blanket culture of impunity. Given all the available evidence, it is absurd to try and convince donor nations that only the material on UNRWA’s website is taught to UNRWA students.

The double game UNRWA is playing is obvious. By not placing this material on its official website, the agency can disassociate itself from its own routine and long-standing teaching practices in Gaza. This lack of responsibility, oversight and control over its 30,000-strong staff epitomizes UNRWA’s management practices.

Despite UNRWA’s attempts to distance itself from these UNRWA-branded materials, the agency admitted that the names of those who signed off on the materials, and who are listed in IMPACT-se’s report, are indeed members of its staff. For example, a content supervisor who is named in the UNRWA-branded materials posted pictures to his Facebook page that show him teaching in UNRWA schools and sharing hateful content carrying his name and the UNRWA school where the material is taught. The content parallels that of the analyzed material in the IMPACT-se report.

Another employee, listed on the UNRWA-branded materials as a content supervisor and inspector, posted pictures from a classroom in UNRWA’s Al-Shati (C) school in Gaza. UNRWA’s logo appeared on the classroom wall, with an Arabic lesson for students in a slideshow displaying the employee’s name as content supervisor, along with the UNRWA logo. The lesson shows an old lady hugging a tree with soldiers in the background and a collage of a prisoner behind bars, a barbed-wire gate and a chained hand gesturing for freedom.

Furthermore, if the material is indeed unauthorized and being taught nonetheless, then UNRWA, which in early 2022 sought $1.6 billion in funding from the international community, owes that community an explanation as to what oversight mechanisms are in place, if any, to prevent the use of such material.

The agency reached out in its statement to IMPACT-se, asking for further guidance as to where the reported material might be found. IMPACT-se welcomes UNRWA’s interest in reviewing the material and hopefully preventing it from being taught. IMPACT-se is committed to instilling a culture of peace and tolerance in school education and would be happy to provide the information requested by UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth. We await a formal request.

The dissonance between UNRWA lashing out at IMPACT-se over its findings, while at the same time requesting guidance from IMPACT-se as to where the reported material might be found, is a further indication of UNRWA’s lack of oversight and accountability.

In May of this year, IMPACT-se met with UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini and raised concerns over his agency’s self-produced materials, pointing out deficiencies on its learning platform. The agency has thus had more than enough time to address these issues. Furthermore, Lazzarini received an advance copy of the report.

The discovery of problematic content in UNRWA-branded materials is not unusual.

UNRWA promised last year that all hate material it produced had been removed, was no longer in circulation and reported breaches of this policy had been dealt with firmly. This came in the wake of the agency’s earlier admission that its teachers had “mistakenly” produced and distributed “inappropriate material” in response to IMPACT-se’s reports of UNRWA-produced study material during the pandemic.

Similarly, in a report published a month ago, a number of UNRWA staff were exposed as supporters of terrorism, violence and anti-Semitism on social media platforms. This is clearly an institutional issue.

UNRWA also stated that it incorporates tolerance and conflict resolution education into its school curricula through a designated teacher toolkit. Yet this toolkit does not reference peace with Israel or tolerance toward Jews—in fact, it does not mention Israel or Jews at all. Moreover, this toolkit is provided solely to teachers and not to students.

If UNRWA were at all serious about its “unwavering commitment” and “zero tolerance of hate speech and incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,” its teaching materials would look very different.

AIPAC, AJC, ADL and Hadassah have all led a call to action, based on IMPACT-se’s report. Last Wednesday, Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) brought the issue of UNRWA’s educational materials to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, following the report’s publication.

The excuses provided by UNRWA staff, who assert that the material identified by our professional team of researchers was simply “unauthorized,” is actually quite shocking. Not only has the organization emphasized the lack of responsibility it is willing to take for materials taught by its staff, but it has once again exposed its lack of oversight regarding what is taught to Palestinian schoolchildren in its own institutions.

Marcus Sheff is the CEO of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.

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