By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
JERUSALEM, Sept. 1 -- The prospect of United Nations-run schools in the Gaza Strip teaching children about the Holocaust has sparked fierce resistance this week from leaders of the Palestinian Hamas movement and forced international officials to confront a situation fraught with political risk.
U.N. officials, who say they are only discussing changes to a school program on human rights, have not commented directly on whether any new curriculum will reference the Holocaust. But Hamas leaders, saying any such reference would "contradict" their culture, are moving quickly to head off the possibility.
"Talk about the holocaust and the execution of the Jews contradicts and is against our culture, our principles, our traditions, values, heritage and religion," Jamila al-Shanti, a Hamas legislative official, said in a statement distributed Tuesday after a meeting among elected leaders of the radical Islamist group and the head of the Hamas-run Education Ministry in Gaza.
Hamas Education Minister Muhammad Askol used similar language in criticizing the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, saying it was not respecting Hamas's "sovereignty" over Gaza. He said he planned to ask for a meeting with agency officials to "assure the necessary coordination."
His remarks came a day after Hamas spiritual leader Yunis al-Astal said teaching children about the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II would be "marketing a lie." He characterized the possible introduction of the subject into Gaza schools as a "war crime."
UNRWA provides food, education and other services for about half of Gaza's population, including about 200,000 children. It has clashed previously with Hamas on a variety of issues, including whether to support mixed-gender summer camps.
In the latest dispute, the agency risks being caught between its usual practice of deferring to local officials on school curriculums and overlooking central facts about world history.
There is currently no mention of the Holocaust in schools run by UNRWA in Gaza, according to Karen AbuZayd, the agency's commissioner general.
UNRWA follows the curriculum set by local officials but has been supplementing it with lessons on human rights it developed on its own, according to an agency official. AbuZayd said a program on the details of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being developed for Gaza middle schools. Though still in draft form, the lesson "will go into some history," she said.
The Universal Declaration was issued by the United Nations in December 1948, in the aftermath of World War II and in recognition of Nazi atrocities.
"It is very much a draft," AbuZayd said, adding that before its introduction into classrooms, it would be circulated among community groups for reaction.
The content of school curriculums is a volatile part of the Arab-Israeli conflict and has taken on a heightened pitch in recent months. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu considers Israel's historical claims central to reaching a peace agreement and has said he would support creation of a Palestinian state only if Palestinian leaders acknowledged Israel as a legitimate Jewish homeland.
Israeli Arabs have complained about recent moves by the country's Education Ministry to remove the word "naqba" -- or catastrophe -- from lessons taught in Arab schools about the events surrounding Israel's creation, while Jews feel that the texts prepared by the more moderate Palestinian Authority still diminish the Jewish experience.
Palestinian Authority textbooks, used in the occupied West Bank, refer to Nazi massacres and anti-Semitism as part of high school lessons about World War II but do not go into detail about the scope of the genocide, according to Israelis and Palestinians familiar with the texts.
On both sides, "there is really no mention of the other story -- of how the other side sees it," said Gershon Baskin, co-chief executive of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, a think tank that has examined textbooks. Baskin is on an advisory panel for a U.S.-funded study, announced on Tuesday, in which Israelis and Palestinians will review each other's textbooks, while U.S. experts perform a computer analysis of the language used in them.
Although both Palestinian and Israeli schools could do a better job, Baskin said, Hamas's outright denial of the Holocaust, as well as opposition to its mention in Gaza schools, is "a step beyond."
Special correspondent Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.