Is UNRWA an Obstacle to Peace?

Students in an UNRWA school in Gaza react enthusiastically to a teacher’s question. (UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan)

Students in an UNRWA school in Gaza react enthusiastically to a teacher’s question. (UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan)

As the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process grabs the latest headlines, a growing group of organizations are calling attention to what they believes to be a major obstacle in fostering understanding between Israelis and Palestinians: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

David Bedein, bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency and director of the Nahum Bedein Center for Near East Policy Research, claims that the U.N. group, which is responsible for administering schools in Palestinian refugee camps, indoctrinates students against the Jewish state through the use of incendiary textbooks and works closely with persons affiliated with known terrorist organizations in the region. According to figures provided by UNRWA, the United States government is its biggest funder, contributing slightly more than $233 million in 2012; the agency’s two-year budget for 2012 and 2013 amounted to $1.3 billion.

Bedein, who has worked on the issue for 25 years, and the Bedein Center launched an international tour that included screenings of the organization’s “Camp Jihad” documentary, which highlights the purported indoctrination of Palestinian children. Its claims are backed by studies done by Jonathan D. Halevi, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and Arnon Groiss, director of research at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance.

Last month, the tour came to Washington, D.C., with two events at the National Press Club and the offices of the Baker Hostetler law firm.

According to attendees at the Press Club event, UNRWA’s Washington liason officer, Chris McGrath, and others from the office were present. McGrath reportedly argued that the scenes from the film were fabricated and refuted the examples Groiss referred to in textbooks used by the Palestinian Authority.

“UNRWA uses the textbooks that are used in host-country schools, including the PA textbooks in Gaza and the West Bank that were created with the full support of the United States and the European Union,” McGrath told Washington Jewish Week. “In addition, UNRWA enhances its curriculum with additional teaching regarding human rights, tolerance and nonviolent conflict resolution.”

According to Bedein, his organization also gave presentations to staff of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee and various aides at the House of Representatives.

“One of the questions they did ask was, ‘How do we get an objective analysis of the books?’” said Bedein. “I gave the example of former Vatican ambassador Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who conducted an investigation of the schoolbooks,  and his conclusion was rather shocking. He said, ‘These were war manuals.’”

Bedein said that he believes children at UNRWA schools are being told that the only end to the conflict would be for them to resettle to the areas that are now part of Israel, which sets an unrealistic expectation.

He said that his organization’s primary goal is to raise awareness of the issue among politicians, journalists and diplomats worldwide to reassess their support of UNRWA.

“The important thing is that there is going to be an expiration of the UNRWA mandate at the end of June, and we’re hoping to tack on some very important conditions for the renewal of UNRWA [funding],” he said. “Why should a United Nations agency, which is supposed to be promoting peace, have a curriculum that is basically a war curriculum?”

UNRWA has come out strongly against the claims in the film. In a statement last fall, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness flatly denied the allegations in the film, calling the claims “baseless” and “patently false.”

“UNRWA has conducted a lengthy and detailed investigation into the film, and we categorically reject the allegations it contains,” said Gunness. “The film is grossly misleading, and we regret the damage it has caused to UNRWA and the United Nations.”

Gunness, however, condemned statements made during an interview featured in the film, saying that UNRWA suspended its “relationship with the third-party organization, pending a review.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.

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