April 6, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1307

UNRWA Working To Amend Curricula In Its West Bank And Gaza Schools; PA, Hamas Oppose This

April 6, 2017 | By C. Jacob*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1307

It has recently been reported that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) means to introduce changes to the curricula of the schools it operates in the West Bank and Gaza. The changes, to be introduced in stages, affect various subjects and pertain to both political and socio-cultural issues. They include removing elements that UNRWA regards as compromising the political neutrality of its educational materials, such as maps showing Palestine from the river to the sea or references to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in lessons on unrelated topics. Other changes pertain to gender, such as replacing some pictures of boys with pictures of girls or of boys and girls together.

The proposed changes sparked sweeping opposition from Palestinians, on the grounds that they distort Palestinian identity and serve the interests of Israel, who accuses the PA of incitement, and that their long-term aim is to inculcate in the students a culture of normalization and coexistence with Israel and distance them from resistance to the occupation.

The PA Education Ministry rejected UNRWA's program and even threatened to sue the organization, and Education Minister Sabri Saidam stressed that the Palestinians want "education that will create liberation" from the occupation. The ministry also conducted a workshop, attended by PA officials as well as prominent Israeli Arab figures, at which speakers rejected Israeli claims about incitement in Palestinian textbooks. Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi said that "it is the right of Palestinians under occupation to incite against it," and Knesset member Hanin Al-Zo'abi said, in a similar vein, that "Inciting against the occupation and its crimes is not just a right, but a human obligation."

Hamas, as well as UNRWA employees and parent committees in UNRWA schools, likewise protested the proposed changes, saying that they pose a grave danger to the Palestinian education system and serve the interests of the U.S. and Israel. In Gaza demonstrations were held against UNRWA's intention to amend the curricula.

This report reviews the curricular changes proposed by UNRWA, as reported in Palestinian media, and the opposition they sparked.

The Proposed Changes: Removing Maps Showing Palestine From River To Sea, Photos Of Israeli Soldiers, References To "Occupation," "Separation Fence"

According to reports in the Palestinian media, the UNRWA General Presidency in Amman informed its Gaza branches of the proposed changes, stating that they will first be made to the curricula of grades 1-4, in the second half of 2017, and will later be expanded to the junior high and high school curricula as well.[1] The reports also specify that UNRWA is planning about 50 changes to textbooks in various subjects, including Arabic, Islamic studies, mathematics, social studies, science and English.[2]

As stated, most of the changes pertain to political issues, and aim to remove elements that disregard Israel's existence and/or make reference to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as part of lessons on unrelated topics. For example, UNRWA seeks to remove a map of Palestine from the river to the sea which appears in several textbooks, and terms such as "the occupation," "occupation soldiers," "the prisoners" and "the separation fence" from math or Arabic exercises. Other changes are motivated by considerations of gender, such as including more pictures of girls and women and of members of both sexes together.

A Palestinian website reports that workshops were already held last year, attended by dozens of teachers, to inform them about the changes and prepare for their implementation.[3]

Below are some examples of the proposed changes, as reported by the Palestinian website on March 16, 2017:

"The change – removing a map of Palestine [from the river to the sea] from a textbook for the fourth grade." The map accompanies a poem titled "Good Morning, Homeland."

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – replacing the map of Palestine [from the river to the sea] with a different image in a textbook for the second grade." The map accompanies a poem titled "Greetings, Our Hills." The English text, presumably supplied by UNRWA, explains that this is a "neutrality issue: a poem illustrated by a his[torical ma]p in a non-historical context," and suggests replacing the map with an image of the Palestinian hills.

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – replacing a map of Palestine [from the river to the sea] with images of a bird and a pumpkin in an Arabic textbook for the first grade." The map is used to teach the sound "tee," which is part of the word "Falasteen" (Palestine). The English text suggests teaching this sound using other words or using the word "Falasteen" but without the map.

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – removing an exercise that refers to 'the occupation,' 'the Al-Aqsa Mosque' and 'army checkpoints' in a math lesson for the second grade."

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – removing an exercise on Palestinian Prisoner Day from a national studies lesson for the third grade."

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – removing the expression 'bulldozers of the occupation' from an Arabic lesson for the second grade."

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – replacing the text 'Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Palestine' with the text 'Jerusalem is a holy city for the Abrahamic religions' in an Arabic lesson for the fourth grade."

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – replacing the words 'the prisoner,' 'the detainee' and 'the prison' with the words 'the prince' and 'the town hall' in an Arabic lesson for the second grade.

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – removing the word 'occupation' from an Arabic lesson for the second grade.

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – removing a picture of an Israeli soldiers from [an illustration in] an Arabic lesson for the second grade."

(image:, march 16, 2017)

"The change – removing an image of the racist [separation] fence with an image of a waterfall in an Arabic lesson for the first grade."

(image:, march 16, 2017)

Removing the place names 'Jerusalem,' 'the Jordan Valley' and 'Haifa' from a fourth grade science lesson and replacing them with references to cities in the West Bank and Gaza.

(image:, march 16, 2017)

The Palestinian news agency Maan posted on its website a list of the proposed changes forwarded by UNRWA to the schools. Among the gender-related changes are the following: "replacing image of boys with image of girls"; "replacing image of men praying with image of women praying"; "replacing a picture of boys playing football with a different picture of boys and girls playing together"; "replacing picture of girls playing with animals with a picture of boys and girls playing with animals"; "replacing a picture of boys taking an interest in the environment with a picture of boys and girls taking an interest in this topic"; "replacing a picture of men celebrating in a wedding with a picture of men and women celebrating together."

Among the changes in the political domain were: "removing all mention of the Israeli occupation and confrontations with it that involve casualties"; "removing text that referred to Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine"; "removing a picture of Israeli soldiers demolishing a home and replacing it with pictures that draw a comparison between a family in a modern home and a in a rustic home"; "replacing a text titled 'We Shall Build and Build' about an occupation bulldozer demolishing a home with a text titled 'We Shall Build and Not Destroy' about an old house in Jerusalem"; "removing a passage about measures taken by the occupation against Gazan fishermen"; "replacing a poem titled 'The Land of the Honorable' about sacrifice for the sake of expelling the foreign occupier with a text titled 'The Holy of Holies' that does not mention sacrifice"; "removing a picture of a girl frightened by soldiers with a picture of building a house and a boy telling his father: 'O father, we are a nation that builds and does not destroy'"; "removing the text 'schoolhouse seized by the occupation and turned into a settlement'".

The list of changes forwarded to the schools (image:, March 24, 2017)

The list of changes forwarded to the schools (image:, March 24, 2017)

PA And Hamas: The Curricular Changes Serve Israel And Damage The Palestinian Identity And Heritage

The PA, Hamas, Palestinian UNWRWA employees, and parents committees have all expressed objections to the curricular changes that UNRWA is demanding for its schools in the West Bank and Gaza.

PA Education Ministry: The Curricular Changes Are In Line With The Occupation's Plots, Damage The National Identity

The PA Education Ministry expressed its absolute opposition to any changes to the curriculum, threatening "punitive measures against anyone who tries to change it or sabotage it, as this will be seen as an act of aggression against Palestine and an attack on and eradication of the national identity." The ministry added, "Damaging the national aspect of the curriculum is in line with the plots of the occupation that disrupts and distorts the curriculum," and called on UNRWA to resist Israeli pressure because the Palestinian curriculum is "a sign of our sovereignty which no one will be allowed to damage or mutilate."[4]

Palestinian Education Minister: We Want Education That Will Create Liberation From Occupation

Additionally, the PA Education Ministry conducted a first-of-its-kind workshop that focused on the claims that Palestinian curricula include incitement and on Israel's criticism of the curricula. The workshop was attended by PA officials, among them Education Minister Sabri Saidam, Culture Minister Ehab Bessaiso, Dr. Walid 'Assaf, head of the PA Commission against the Wall and the Settlements, Fatah official and former PA foreign minister Nabil Sha'ath, Jerusalem and PA mufti Muhammad Hussein, and leading Israeli Arab figures Ahmad Tibi, Muhammad Barakeh, Hanin Zo'abi, Mas'oud Ghanaim, Taleb Al-Sana. Speakers at the workshop rejected claims that Palestinian curricula include incitement, and argued that it is Israel that is spreading incitement against the Palestinians..

At the workshop, Education Minister Saidam reviewed the various aspects of the curricula, particularly those that involve "the new national program for grades 1 through 4," and said: "We want education that will create liberation [from occupation]." This extraordinary workshop, he said, was being held "as part of [the response] to Israel's attack on our curricula... We must mobilize all channels and all capabilities, on the political, diplomatic, and informational levels, in order to disprove Israel's claims and to condemn its racist policy, which is based on the nullification of the other and on distortion of facts."

Past And Present Members Of The Israeli Knesset: The Palestinians Have The Right To Incite Against The Occupation

At the workshop Ahmad Tibi, who is a Member of the Israeli Knesset (MK), said: "It is the right of Palestinians under occupation to incite against it." Similarly, MK Hanin Zo'abi said: "Inciting against the occupation and its crimes is not just a right, but a human obligation."[5]

Hamas Officials: The Changes That Are Being Demanded Are Influenced By Israel

Unusually for the Palestinian arena, the positions expressed by Hamas officials in the West Bank and Gaza corresponded with those of the PA. Hamas Legislative Council member 'Atef 'Adwan said that UNRWA had no authority to make curricular changes: "The organization's interference contradicts its fundamental mission, [which is] to provide aid to the [Palestinian] refugees... and aims to please the donor countries."[6]

Hamas's Refugee Affairs division director Dr. 'Issam 'Adwan called the curriculum changes that were being demanded "a political crime" committed by UNRWA, particularly because they are a violation of the UNRWA's agreement with the PA to make no such changes. He called on the PA to strongly oppose this move and force UNRWA to honor the agreement: "These changes have long-term cumulative effects: When the image of Palestine vanishes from the students' minds, along with certain significant words and terms – this means that cities are disappearing for the Palestinian refugee, including his own city."[7]

Wisam 'Afifa, editor-in-chief of the Hamas publication Al-Risala, argued: "The changes UNRWA [is demanding] have the scent of Israel which is aimed at stripping Palestinian children of their nationalism... as though UNRWA representatives visited Israel's intelligence rooms or Education Ministry." He warned: "If UNRWA continues on this path, it should be treated as a biased [pro-Israel] political element rather than as an international aid organization."[8]

Gaza Education Ministry Curricula Department director Dr. Samia Al-Nakhala said that UNRWA had no right to make additions or changes to Palestinian curricula. She said: "Just as UNRWA is bound by the curricula in all countries that host [Palestinian refugees, such as] Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, it should likewise be bound by the curricula in the Palestinian territories... These changes [that UNRWA is proposing] pertain to political topics that damage the Palestinian cause, and their aim is clearly political. UNRWA purports to be neutral, but its position is far from neutral when it rejects [the inclusion in the curricula of] terms such as 'the occupation,' 'the prisoners,' and 'Jerusalem' and this is why we must stand fast against its measures."[9]

Palestinian UNRWA Educators And Parents Committees: The Curricular Changes Could Cement The Culture Of Coexistence And Distance Students From Resistance

Objections to the curricular changes also came from Palestinian UNRWA employees and parents committees at UNRWA schools. Amal Al-Battash, deputy head of the UNRWA workers union, said that the union had stopped a Gaza workshop on the curricular changes because the union was "not going to allow the implementation of this plot against the Palestinian people." She stressed: "These changes damage the [Palestinian] principles, and distort the Palestinian history, geography, and beliefs. UNRWA was established to provide aid, employment, and protection for Palestinian refugees – but with this move [of curricular change], it is abandoning its mandate... UNRWA's neutrality has turned into brainwashing for children, while the Israeli curricula call for violence, murder, hatred, and racism. We realize that the occupation is waging an aggressive campaign to end UNRWA's activity, but we will protect this organization, as it is the sole witness of the refugees' exile and suffering, until they return and establish a state with Jerusalem as its capital."

Al-Battash also called on UNRWA's general commissioner and leadership to officially announce the closure of this case and the cancellation of all curricular changes that harm Palestinian principles, history, and geography.[10]

Another source in UNRWA, apparently Palestinian, was cited in an article on the Palestinian website, which operates from Gaza. The article set out in detail UNRWA's proposed changes to the curricula, particularly those in grades 1-4. The article stated that the curricular changes would be sufficient to eradicate Palestinian history, identity, and principles. It cited the source as saying that the teachers had been warned that they would be investigated, and could even be fired, if they did not implement the changes. The source added: "The changes are aimed at eradicating all the symbols and attributes of Palestinian nationalism... including the map of Palestine and the name of Palestine, and at cementing the existence of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian land as though it is entitled to it... These changes are aimed at omitting or replacing all text dealing with the occupation's oppressive actions against the Palestinian people, such as the racist separation fence, the home demolitions, the daily murders and arrests, and the names of Israeli prisons. Another [of the requirements] is not marking Prisoners Day, not referring to 'prisoners,' not connecting the Jordan Valley to Palestine, and the removal of [references to] Palestinian heritage."

The article continued to quote the source as saying: "These changes do not correspond to the culture of Palestinian society, and are aimed at brainwashing the Palestinian students, eradicating the culture of generations and their connection to their homeland and their cause. This cements the culture of normalization and peaceful coexistence as a solution to the problem, and distances the students from the Palestinian resistance – which is a legitimate right under international law. The amended curriculum is designed to distort the path of the Palestinian struggle throughout Palestinian history, and also to distort the refugee problem, based on the claim that the Palestinians fled their own homes, but failing to mention the slaughter and expulsion of Palestinians carried out by the Zionist Israeli criminal gangs.

"[The Palestinians] must not be taken in by plans to change the Palestinian curricula under the pretext of 'development' that corresponds to Israeli and American interests in the region and poses a serious danger to the Palestinian educational system and the future of the Palestinian students... The curricula should protect the Palestinian cause and national enterprise, and should insist on all the rights, not compromise on them – so that we can build a Palestinian generation that knows truth from falsehood and can stand for the inalienable principles and rights against all the pressures."[11]

As noted, objections to the curricular changes came also from the parents of the students at the UNRWA schools. Zaher Al-Banna, head of a parents committee at an UNRWA school, warned that the agency was "likely to eradicate the Palestinian identity through the changes that it is attempting to introduce into the curricula... We will not allow this. We oppose this program and will work to thwart it."[12]

The parents committees also held an anti-UNRWA protest in Gaza on March 29, 2017, voicing their opposition to any measures to change the curricula "to correspond with the position of Israel, which demands the eradication of any expression of the Palestinian people's identity and legitimate rights, particularly the right of return." The committee called on all international institutions to end what it referred to as "the Israeli government's savage attack on the Palestinian curricula."[13]

Parents committees protest in Gaza. Signs feature slogans such as "Al-Quds is in our hearts" and "The map of Palestine is in our hearts and minds"(image:, March 29, 2017)

A similar protest was held on March 21 by the Popular Committee of Palestinian Refugees, outside the UNRWA offices in Khan Yunes.[14]

Protest in Khan Yunes (Al-Quds, Jerusalem, March 21, 2017)


*C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.



[1] Al-Risala (Gaza), March 23, 2017.

[2], March 26, 2017.

[3], March 26, 2017.

[4] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), March 24, 2017.

[5] Al-Ayyam (PA), March 23, 2017.

[6], March 26, 2017.

[7] Al-Risala (Gaza), March 23, 2017.

[8] Al-Risala (Gaza), March 16, 2017.

[9] Al-Risala (Gaza), March 23, 2017.

[10], March 24, 2017.

[11], March 16, 2017.

[12], March 26, 2017.

[13], March 29, 2017.

[14] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), March 21, 2017.

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