Analysis: UK still funds incitement in Palestinian school curriculum

Illustration from Palestinian textbook. Credit: IMPACT-se.

UK ministers have avoided making any concrete commitments to tackle incitement to violence in the Palestinian Authority school curriculum, despite the findings of a recently published independent study.

What happened

  • In a Westminster Hall debate this morning, Foreign and International Development Office minister James Duddridge avoided any firm pledges of action, despite UK aid funding the salaries of 33,000 PA Ministry of Education civil servants and teachers who devised and deliver the highly controversial curriculum.
  • The long-delayed report from the Georg Eckert Institute, published last week by the European Union, confirmed that the curriculum promotes antisemitism and incitement to violence, celebrates terrorism and jihad, and rejects peacemaking and reconciliation with Israel.
  • In response, the EU’s commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, said the EU should consider conditioning aid to the PA on the removal of antisemitism and incitement to violence from its textbooks. The UK government has given no such commitment.
  • However, doubts about some of the report’s conclusions – in particular, claims of an improvement in the curriculum in the 2020-21 academic year – have been raised.
  • Labour Friends of Israel first raised the issue of the curriculum with UK ministers in 2017 – our concerns were initially dismissed out of hand, but, following negative media stories, the government eventually agreed to commission an independent review which evolved into the EU-commissioned GEI study. It also pledged to “take action” if evidence of material which incites violence was found.

The GEI’s findings

The GEI report finds evidence of antisemitic tropes, such as suggesting “Jews as a collective are dangerous and deceptive” which “generate feelings of hatred toward Jews”. References to reconciliation and peacebuilding from the previous curriculum have been removed, while terrorism is “presented as a necessary means during a historical phase of the Palestinian struggle” as well as “fair and therefore justified.” Incitement to violence is commonplace even in science and maths which has “escalatory potential”, being described as “heroic struggle” and part of “Palestinian nation-building” through “violence against civilians [which] is also presented as part of the narrative of resistance”. Jihad, martyrdom and terrorism are celebrated, including in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is consistently delegitimised, being erased from maps and rarely mentioned by name.

Meeting UNESCO standards …

Questions have been raised, however, as to the GEI’s conclusions that the curriculum aligns with UNESCO-derived standards for peace and tolerance in education. Indeed, the body of the report contains evidence which appears to contradict that finding:

  • Dalal Mughrabi – who led the infamous 1978 Coastal Road Massacre, in which 38 civilians, including 13 children, were murdered – is celebrated in a 10-page Arabic reading exercise which refers to her “heroism” and labels the massacre itself “immortal”. School pupils are invited to follow in Mughrabi’s footsteps and view her as a role model; “the crown of the nation,” as she is described.
  • Another Arabic language exercise promotes suicide bombings in a gruesome reading comprehension which talks about wild animals and birds of prey feasting on the bodies of murdered Israeli soldiers. The suicide bomber “cut the necks of the enemy soldiers”, the textbook says, illustrating the exercise with the image of Israeli soldiers shot dead in a tank by Palestinian gunmen.
  • A fourth-grade maths exercise asks students to calculate the number of martyrs – including those who attacked buses and shopping centres – in Palestinian uprisings and accompanies the exercise with a picture of coffins being held aloft at a mass funeral.
  • The 1972 Munich Olympic terror attack – in which Israeli athletes were brutally tortured and murdered – is justified as “striking at Zionist interests abroad”.

… and improvements in 2020-22?

The report makes a series of sweeping generalisations in which it claims that there have been improvements in the curriculum in the 2020-21 academic year. However, these findings appear to be highly problematic.

  • The GEI examined only 15 percent of the currently taught 2020-21 textbooks (overall, it studied 43.6 percent of the curriculum introduced since 2017 following the PA’s curriculum reform).
  • In a series of footnotes, the researchers concede that some of the books on which it bases its findings about supposed improvements in the current academic year may never actually have been used by Palestinian children. Indeed, they were not on the PA Ministry of Education portal when the report was written nor is there evidence that print versions were ever in circulation.
  • The alleged textbooks were supplied to GEI directly by the EU. “The review of these books was added after the analysis for this report had been finalised,” the GEI investigation suggests.
  • Even the “improvements” cited by the GEI are questionable. In an Islamic education textbook, a reference to “the Jews” desecrating the tombs of Muslim leaders “shovelling them away and removing them from Muslims’ cemeteries” was tweaked in 2020 so that the phrase “the Zionist occupation” replaces “the Jews”. The text is accompanied by a picture of a tomb, believed to be that of Muhammad’s companion Ubada ibn a-Samit in Jerusalem.
  • In its latest analysis of the 2020-21 curriculum, the highly respected Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education found there have been no substantive changes to the most problematic content and, in fact, the curriculum has become progressively worse with each revision since its initial introduction. “No changes relating to existing problematic content which supports hate speech, antisemitism, incitement, violence, and encouragement of martyrdom and jihad have been made in the Palestinian Authority’s 2020–21 school textbooks,” it suggests. “Most adjustments keep such material intact or make it worse.”
  • “The curriculum teaches antisemitic canards such as Jews are corrupt and control finance, the media, and politics. Images include an arm with a Star of David holding a globe,” IMPACT-se notes of the 2020-22 curriculum. Jews are also referred to as “enemies of Islam” who attempted to kill the Prophet Muhammad and desecrate the tombs of Muslim leaders.

The PA reacts

In his response to the GEI findings, the PA prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, defended the textbooks and rejected any judgement of them based on external standards. The Palestinian Ministry of Education issued a statement saying that the PA government approved a plan to self-finance its education sector to “safeguard the independence and sovereignty of curricula” from international criticism by donor nations. Moreover, in response to funding cuts made last December by Norway over the contents of the textbooks, Shtayyeh declared in his opening remarks at a cabinet meeting that the “curriculum will not be surrendered” and that the PA would finance the printing of textbooks by reallocating funds for water, electricity and communication systems if foreign aid is conditioned.

Broken promises

The PA’s belligerent rhetoric contrasts with various undertakings it has previously given.

  • Since 2016, the PA has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK which governs British aid. That MoU commits the PA to take against “incitement to violence, including addressing allegations of incitement in the educational curriculum”.
  • However, the UK’s criteria for judging the PA’s performance appears tightly drawn. It deemed an internal government target in the 2017-18 MoU for the PA to carry out “curriculum reform” was met, but then Middle East minister Alistair Burt admitted in a letter that it did not include the actual contents of the curriculum.
  • In January 2019, Burt met the PA education minister, Sabri Saidam. Burt later told parliamentarians that the PA had “committed to engage constructively with the findings of the textbook review”. But shortly after giving this alleged commitment, Saidam was reported by official Palestinian media to have “stressed the ministry and all the Palestinian people’s rejection to the attack on the national Palestinian curriculum led by the Zionist lobby”.
  • Shtayyeh’s comments last December came only three months after the prime minister had met UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab in Ramallah. Middle East minister James Cleverly said after Raab’s meeting that the incitement had been raised and the UK government “welcomes the PA’s work to revise its textbooks and their intention to publish updated content for the start of the school year”.

What should happen next

LFI continues to call for our long-standing plan of action:

  • The UK should follow the lead of Norway and suspend all aid to the PA which directly or indirectly finances those teaching and implementing this curriculum until the PA commits to wholesale and urgent revisions of it.
  • While that money remains suspended, it should be redirected to Palestinian NGOs that have a proven track record of promoting peace initiatives in schools. We should support education projects in Palestine not tarnished by the PA’s antisemitism. Palestinian children and young people must not suffer due to the acts of their leaders
  • The government should take forward the private member’s bill introduced in 2019 by former LFI chair Louise Ellman. It would prohibit UK international development assistance to schools operated by the PA that do not promote values endorsed by UNESCO and commit the government to publish an annual report on the extent to which such development assistance for schools operated by the PA support the promotion of those values.