A new report by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, describes a “fiery debate” between the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the Palestinian teachers it employs over the agency’s attempt to teach about the Holocaust to the 220,000 children in its Gaza schools.
The report quotes one Palestinian group calling Holocaust studies “a lie fabricated by Zionists” and a Hamas legislator labeling teaching it a “war crime.”
Trying to calm Palestinians protests, then head of UNRWA in Gaza said two years ago the Holocaust would be taught alongside studies about the Palestinian “Nakba” – the 1948 “catastrophe” of the founding of the State of Israel. (Raising the question: was a UN official suggesting a moral equivalency between the Nazi murder of six million Jews and the experience of Palestinians when seven Arab armies refused to recognize the new Jewish State and instead launched war on Israel?)
MEMRI describes UNRWA’s efforts in its refugee camps in Jordan which haven’t fared much better:
In early 2011, UNRWA announced plans to add Holocaust studies to the curriculum of its schools in Jordan, as well, but in light of opposition from teachers there and their threats to step up the protest against it, the organization backed down.
Palestinians aside, the UN agency is facing a bigger image problem on Capitol Hill.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee last week approved a bill which among its de-fund-the-UN-provisions threatens to cut off U.S. aid entirely from UNRWA for activities which the legislation says contradict American values and foreign policy priorities.
According to its website, UNRWA protects and advocates for some five million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza, “pending a solution to their plight.” Services include education, health, and social services in Palestinian refugee camps.
The House bill would prohibit further U.S. funding – to the tune of $230 million per year – of UNRWA until it:
“vets its staff and aid recipients via U.S. watch lists for ties to Foreign Terrorist Organizations; stops engaging in anti-Israel propaganda and politicized activities; improves its accountability and transparency; and stops banking with financial institutions under U.S. designation for terror financing or money laundering.”
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness wrote in The Huffington Post in August that:
“UNRWA imposes the strictest standards of neutrality on its staff, beneficiaries, suppliers and installations that go well beyond those of many comparable organizations and even governments” and that “every six months, staff names are checked against the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee list of terrorists and terrorist entities.”
With Hamas controlling Gaza and its trade unions, it’s questionable even with the best intentions how effective UNRWA can be in vetting its thousands of employees, many of whom are themselves refugees.
Former UNRWA general counsel James Lindsay provided an insider account of the organization last year accusing it of perpetuating the scourge of Palestinians’ refugee status when some are able to support themselves. "No justification exists for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid going to those who can afford to pay for UNRWA services," he wrote.
Lindsay also criticized UNRWA officials for expressing anti-Israel political positions on the conflict, writing the agency should:
"halt its one-sided political statements and limit itself to comments on humanitarian issues; take additional steps to ensure the agency is not employing or providing benefits to terrorists and criminals; and allow the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), or some other neutral entity, to provide balanced and discrimination-free textbooks for UNRWA initiatives."
"The United States, despite funding nearly 75 percent of UNRWA’s initial budget and remaining its largest single country donor, has largely failed to make UNRWA reflect U.S. foreign policy objectives."
The Obama administration strongly opposes the House bill. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the committee which according to Time warned:
that the legislation would severely limit U.S. participation in the world body, undercut U.S. interests and damage the security of Americans at home and abroad. "This bill would effectively cede American leadership, creating a void for our adversaries to fill," Clinton wrote.
It appears UNRWA is trying to address some of the criticism, though with Hamas running Gaza, it’s unclear how successful those efforts can be. Earlier this month, thousands of Gaza teachers went on strike for the day to protest UNRWA suspending staffer Suhail Al-Hindi, the head of the Local Staff Union, a pro-Hamas body. Hamas sources told Reuters said the U.N. agency had accused Hindi of meeting with Hamas political officials. Reuters reported:
Buses took some 7,000 teachers employed at UNRWA-run schools to U.N. headquarters in Gaza city where they held a sit-in, calling for an end to “UNRWA political punishment of employees”.
All this raises tough questions: however flawed, is UNRWA providing even a small mitigating force against radicalism exemplified in its efforts to teach the Holocaust and fire employees? Would U.S. interests be better served by leaving the education solely in the hands of Hamas? On the other hand, as long as Hamas runs Gaza, do Americans want to keep footing the bill for a troubled enterprise?