When former U.S. President Donald Trump cut off U.S. funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2018, he was widely criticized for eliminating a crucial source of humanitarian aid to Palestinians in need. Even critics of the embattled U.N. agency called the decision a mistake, arguing that working with UNRWA, not against it, was the best way to facilitate long-needed reform.
It came as little surprise when U.S. President Joe Biden renewed funding to UNRWA in April. According to the U.S. State Department, the United States is now providing UNRWA with close to its pre-Trump level of funding—$318 million in 2021—making the United States once again the agency’s top donor.
Yet this renewed aid comes with an unprecedented push for change—something the Trump administration, for all its criticism of UNRWA, never endeavored.
According to the Framework for Cooperation signed by the U.S. State Department and UNRWA on July 14, continued U.S. financing will require UNRWA to implement various reforms, including combating incitement and antisemitism in its educational curriculum, requiring the neutrality of its staff, and ensuring UNRWA facilities are not used by terrorist organizations and its staff are not affiliated with them. The framework—along with recently introduced bipartisan legislation—follow numerous reports on the problematic nature of UNRWA’s education system.
Speaking at the U.N. Security Council briefing on the situation in the Middle East on Oct. 19, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told member nations, “we need to see UNRWA undertake the necessary reforms to ensure its financial sustainability. And we will work with UNRWA to strengthen the agency’s accountability, transparency, and consistency with humanitarian principles, including neutrality.”
Eliminating antisemitism, incitement, and links to terrorism might sound like obvious conditions for a U.N. agency whose slogan is “Peace Starts Here.” But it’s far from clear whether these are conditions—especially as applied to UNRWA’s educational programs—the organization will be able to fulfill.
The United Nations established UNRWA in 1949 to aid the more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel.
Nearly 73 years later, UNRWA operates 58 refugee camps and 715 schools for more than half a million boys and girls in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Originally designed as a temporary agency, UNRWA is now one of the largest U.N. organizations, employing some 30,000 people and serving around 5.7 million Palestinian refugees, nearly all of them descendants of the original refugees. “UNRWA is unique in terms of its long-standing commitment to one group of refugees,” its website says. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, meanwhile, oversees all the world’s other refugees, employs more than 18,000 people, and aids a population of nearly 59 million.
Nearly 60 percent of UNRWA’s roughly $1 billion annual budget is allocated to education programs which claim to teach children values of peace, tolerance, and nonviolent conflict resolution. Yet according to various studies of the Palestinian curriculum, which is taught by UNRWA in the Palestinian territories, the agency is falling far short of that goal. Textbooks depict Jews as enemies of Islam, glorify so-called martyrs who have died while committing terror attacks, and promote jihad for the liberation of historic Palestine, including areas firmly within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, such as Jaffa and Haifa. Maps of the region do not include the state of Israel, which throughout the curriculum is referred to as “the Zionist Occupation.”
A comprehensive report released in June, financed by the European Union and conducted by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, examined 172 Palestinian textbooks used in UNRWA schools. It found “ambivalent—sometimes hostile—attitudes toward Jews and the characteristics they attribute to the Jewish people,” noting “frequent use of negative attributions in relation to the Jewish people in, for example, textbook exercises [that] suggest a conscious perpetuation of anti-Jewish prejudice, especially when embedded within the current political context.”
The only mention of peace with Israel was in one 10th grade history book, which quotes a speech delivered by late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and letters of mutual recognition exchanged between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in September 1993. “The recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security documented in the letters by [former Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat to [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin stands in contrast to the questioning of the legitimacy of the State of Israel expressed in other passages and textbooks,” the report states. It also determined that although textbooks focus heavily on human rights, they “do not apply these notions to Israel” or “to the rights of Israelis.”
A 5th grade Islamic education lesson “asks students to discuss the ‘repeated attempts by the Jews to kill the Prophet’ and then asks them to think of ‘other enemies of Islam.’” The report goes on: “It is not so much the sufferings of the Prophet or the actions of the companions that appear to be the focus of this teaching unit but, rather, the alleged perniciousness of the Jews.”
Another troubling example is a 5th grade lesson about Dalal Mughrabi. A perpetrator of the 1978 Coastal Road massacre, she carried out one of the worst terror attacks in Israeli history, killing 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children. The lesson about her reads, “our Palestinian history is full of many names of shuhada (martyrs) who sacrificed their lives for the homeland, including the shahida (martyr) Dalal Mughrabi whose struggle took the form of defiance and heroism, which made her memory immortal in our hearts and minds.” The report found that “no further portraits of significant female figures in Palestinian history are presented,” so “the path of violence implicitly appears to be the only option for women to demonstrate an outstanding commitment to their people and country.”
A 7th grade social studies textbook propagates the conspiracy theory that Israel removed stones from ancient sites in Jerusalem and “replaced them with stones bearing ‘Zionist drawings and shapes.’” A 9th grade Islamic education textbook features passages on jihad and “the wisdom behind fighting the infidels.”
In addition to criticism of its education system, UNRWA has also been roiled by other scandals. During the 2014 Gaza War, the agency discovered rockets stored in its schools and, on at least one occasion, returned them to Hamas. In 2019, the head of UNRWa resigned amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, including abuse of power and suppression of dissent within the organization. Long accused of lacking transparency, a leaked ethics report that year led several European countries to suspend their funding.
Left: A teacher interacts with students at a school run by the UNRWA at the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City on Aug. 8, 2020. MAJDI FATHI/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES Right: Palestinian students sit at a school run by the UNRWA at the al-Shati refugee camp on Aug. 9, 2020. MOHAMMED TALATENE/PICTURE ALLIANCE VIA GETTY IMAGES
In early September, I spoke with UNRWA’s chief spokesperson, Tamara Alrifai. Asked if and how the UNRWA curriculum would be modified to address the concerns contained within the new U.S. framework, Alrifai told me: “We do not change the curriculum because these are not our curriculums.” UNRWA uses host government textbooks everywhere they operate, she said.
“We acknowledge that sometimes there are parts in the PA [Palestinian Authority] textbooks that are not fully in line with U.N. standards and values, and that is where we interfere,” she explained. “With passages that are not gender sensitive or carry discrimination and incitement, we interfere there to make sure that either they are not being taught or that they are approached critically.” For example, she told me, “We stopped teaching the Dalal Mughrabi lesson in UNRWA schools.” Even before that lesson was removed last year, she said, “we instructed our teachers to approach this critically with the kids.”
Alrifai acknowledged that the issue of neutrality is a challenge, as the vast majority of UNRWA employees are themselves Palestinian refugees. However, she said, “there is zero tolerance for incitement, antisemitism, and discrimination.”
Numerous UNRWA staff have been found to be affiliated with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip. Many others have posted violent, antisemitic content on social media, with some praising Adolf Hitler. Seven teachers have been suspended while investigations into these incidents take place, Alrifai said. “If the allegations are proven, there will be disciplinary action that can amount to being dismissed,” she said.
Regarding accusations that UNRWA employees have ties to Hamas, Alrifai assured me: “For sure they’re not allowed to have a formal political position in Hamas and be UNRWA employees. But after that, I don’t know where the line is drawn. If they can be members of Hamas, they would be subject to disciplinary action by UNRWA.”
Although UNRWA primarily teaches the PA curriculum, it also produces some of its own material. For example, Alrifai noted, UNRWA schools teach their own human rights, conflict resolution, and tolerance curriculum on top of host country material. Yet that curriculum does not reference peace with Israel or tolerance toward Jewish people—in fact, it does not mention Israel or Jewish people at all.
During the pandemic, UNRWA published its own learning material online to support at-home schooling. A study of that content by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) found the curriculum to be filled with violent language and glorification of militants. A 6th grade grammar lesson, for example, includes the phrase, “we shall defend the motherland with blood.” An 8th grade lesson teaches students that “Jihad is one of the doors to Paradise,” and “Palestinians have become an example of sacrifice.”
In response to the IMPACT-se report, UNRWA acknowledged that some of the curriculum was “not in line with U.N. values” and the agency “took steps to ensure that only approved material was used going forward.”
In late September, I visited a UNRWA school in Shuafat, East Jerusalem, at UNRWA’s invitation, to see how the new school year was beginning in the wake of renewed U.S. funding and the push for reform that came with it. The visit was cut short by UNRWA administrators, however, when I tried to speak with students about their curriculum inside the school.
I then caught up with several of them as they were beginning to walk home. My interpreter and I introduced ourselves and asked students if they could tell us a bit about their lessons at school. The children were eager to speak.
Asked what they are taught about the martyrs of Palestine, a 5th grade student replied that her class had just learned about Dalal Mughrabi (the perpetrator of the Coastal Road massacre who I had been told was no longer a part of the UNRWA curriculum).
“They taught us that she is a hero,” she said, showing us the page in her textbook. “We are taught that martyrs go to a very high level of heaven,” said another girl. Asked what they have learned regarding peace at school, the second girl replied: “We haven’t learned about peace. This is for older students.”
When we met a 9th grade student, we asked her what she had learned at school about the two-state solution. “We are taught to defend Palestine, so there can be no two-state solution.”
All of these interviews were conducted in the streets of Shuafat and not inside the school. When we passed the gates of the school several hours after we had left, one of the guards came to the entrance to remind us we were not welcome there.
Leaving Shuafat late that afternoon, I hailed a taxi from within the camp. The driver, Muhammad Taha, asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was writing about the renewal of U.S. funding to UNRWA. “The U.S. is giving millions of dollars to UNRWA, and where does it go?” Taha asked, gesturing to the streets we passed. “UNRWA isn’t helping anyone. Look around, and you can see it. The streets are filled with drugs and crime.”
In his introduction to the camp before we met with students, an UNRWA officer also mentioned to me that crime, drugs, and family disputes were rampant there. Taha, the taxi driver, was born in the camp and had spent 30 years of his life there. He was also educated by UNRWA. He left Shuafat when he became a father, he told me, “to give my children a better life.”
Responding to questions for this story, an official at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration wrote, “the United States condemns in the strongest terms any manifestations of anti-Semitism, hate, or incitement. The Department has been very explicit about the reforms we expect to see to ensure UNRWA’s operations, including staff activities, facilities, and education materials, are conducted consistent with U.N. principles, such as neutrality, tolerance, respect for human rights, and non-discrimination. The Department has made it clear to UNRWA as part of our resumption of funding that acting in accordance with U.N. principles is non-negotiable. … We can—and will—hold UNRWA accountable to these commitments now that we are back at the table.”
While the framework signed in July ensures funding will continue for the next two years, “it sets clear benchmarks that UNRWA will need to follow moving forward,” said Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “If they don’t meet these requirements, there will be huge political pressure on the Biden administration to cease or limit funding.”
That political pressure is beginning to mount. When Biden restored funding to the Palestinians in April, a bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced the Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act. First introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman in late 2019, the bill made it out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee without opposition but failed to reach the House floor before the end of session. The legislation, which now has nine Democratic and 19 Republican sponsors, would mandate annual State Department reports to Congress for 10 years on whether educational material produced by the PA and UNRWA contain “content and passages encouraging violence or intolerance toward other nations or ethnic groups” and what steps are being taken to reform the curriculum.
Shortly after the State Department’s framework with UNRWA was signed in July, a group of Republicans introduced the UNRWA Accountability and Transparency Act. With 13 sponsors in the Senate and 34 in the House, the bill would freeze UNRWA aid if the State Department cannot meet certain criteria, including confirmation that no UNRWA employees are members of or affiliated with terror organizations, that no UNRWA resources are being used by terror groups, and that the U.N. agency’s schools do not provide educational materials containing antisemitic content.
“I don’t think there is any question that UNRWA is an impediment to peace,” Sen. James Risch, who introduced the legislation, told Foreign Policy. If the Biden administration is serious about reforming UNRWA, Risch said, it should ensure these reforms are made before providing aid. “Until we see those reforms, they shouldn’t get any money from us. It’s that simple. In addition, we should be pressing our allies to cut their funding until we see those reforms.”
While some advocates of UNRWA reform applaud the Biden administration’s resumption of aid and its push for improvements, many say the framework does not go far enough. Although it encourages increased oversight, for example, that oversight would largely be carried out by UNRWA itself. Many say the agency has proven itself incapable of internal oversight.
According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, although UNRWA vowed to confront problematic material in Palestinian textbooks by providing alternative teaching materials and guidance for teachers, “UNRWA did not train teachers or distribute the complementary teaching materials to classrooms.”
Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se, a nonprofit organization that has been analyzing the Palestinian curriculum for 20 years and published a critical report of UNRWA’s online material earlier this year, said, “the opacity of UNRWA’s operations does not befit a U.N. or humanitarian organization. There has to be transparency, actual oversight, and accountability to ensure compliance. This is the only thing which will restore confidence in UNRWA.”
In addition, Sheff said, UNRWA should not be able to make the excuse that “‘the PA curriculum is problematic, but we have mechanisms to redress it.’ This was never something that could be ascertained one way or the other. UNRWA claims that it has to use the host country’s teaching materials, yet this is not something they have to do. It’s not something the donor countries insist they do.” If UNRWA is going to teach the PA curriculum, he added, that curriculum must change. “It can no longer teach jihad and martyrdom and that young people should wish to sacrifice themselves.”
IMPACT-se also analyzes Israeli textbooks, and although Sheff acknowledges the Israeli curriculum “is not perfect,” references to the occupation, the suffering of Palestinians, and the Palestinian narrative of the conflict are prevalent. Israeli students are taught, for example, about the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian lands, the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Deir Yassin in 1948, and the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. This, Sheff wrote in a recent op-ed, would be “considered a left-wing curriculum by many Israeli parents.”
Advocates of UNRWA reform believe an organization of its size and budget should be more than capable of producing material that excludes violent or antisemitic material and includes lessons on peace and tolerance as it pertains to Israel.
“There should be a realistic approach to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would mean two states for two peoples and not something in which Israel’s Jewish character is called into question,” said Daniel Shapiro, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration and, at the time of our conversation, was a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. He is now an advisor to the State Department.
Those pushing for reforming the Palestinian curriculum and UNWRA’s use of it believe the indoctrination of generations of Palestinians against peace is one of the reasons this conflict has remained so intractable. Referring to the PA’s refusal of Israel’s offer to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza during the Camp David summit in 2000 and a similar proposal for the creation of a Palestinian state in 2008, Risch said, “I don’t think you can point to another conflict in the world where there is so much resistance to reaching a settlement. The Palestinians have passed up every opportunity they have had to end this conflict.”
Palestinians, for their part, have been protesting the new terms of U.S. financing for UNRWA for months. At a demonstration outside UNRWA’s Gaza office in September, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine announced all Palestinian factions would work to “bring down the framework,” which he said “targets a large segment of Palestinian refugees, including members or those who have received military training in the Palestine Liberation Army or any other Palestinian organization.”
Education, Sheff said, is one of the most overlooked and obvious factors in this conflict, which could have more impact than perhaps any other effort. “If Palestinian children have no idea that peacemaking is the way to resolve this conflict and that there should be Israel and Palestine living side by side, if there is no chance that the next generation of Palestinian children will be educated toward the possibility of peace, there will be no peace,” he said. “This is not a complicated idea.”