by Jonathan S. Tobin
UNRWA's proposed changes are a step in the right direction. The PA's opposition is more proof that it is an obstacle to any hope for a better life for both Israeli and Palestinian children.
It is an article of faith for the international community and the Jewish Left that the Palestinian Authority is a moderate force that wants to make peace with Israel. That belief has been undermined by many of the PA's actions and statements since its creation after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, yet somehow it survives and forms the basis for many of the assumptions critics make about Israel's government.
The latest proof that the PA is a principle obstacle to peace rather than its best hope has not received any attention in the Western press. But a discussion of the conflict that has arisen between it and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency speaks volumes about everything that is wrong with the PA.
UNRWA is the world body that is devoted solely to aiding Palestinian refugees. Unlike the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is tasked with helping all other refugees around the world, UNRWA doesn't try to resettle refugees or resolve their problems. On the contrary, since its creation after the Arab failure to destroy Israel in its War of Independence, UNRWA has helped to perpetuate the clash between Israel and the Muslim and Arab worlds and championed the "right of return" that would spell Israel's end. Its schools and aid projects have been hotbeds of radicalism aimed at erasing the existence of the Jewish state and have even been used by Hamas. In particular, critics have noted the way UNRWA schools in the West Bank and Gaza have curricula and textbooks that teach up to 600,000 Palestinian youngsters to reject Israel's legitimacy and glorify the struggle to destroy it.
But, like the rest of the U.N., UNRWA has been feeling some pressure to reform. The Trump administration has shown a willingness to throw its weight around that directly contrasts with former President Barack Obama's support for the U.N. Under new Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who previously headed the U.N.'s other refugee agency, efforts to promote the libel that Israel is an apartheid state were rejected. So when the Arab press reported leaks about a shift in UNRWA's education policy, this seemed to indicate that even that agency was feeling some pressure to change its ways.
According to those reports, UNRWA was planning to alter the textbooks it uses in its schools. Among the planned changes, cities inside Israel would stop being labeled as Palestinian, a practice that instills a sense in readers that the Jewish state is merely a colonialist intrusion built entirely on "stolen" Arab land. Other changes included an effort to tone down praise of Palestinians who commit terrorism against Jews and Israelis. Its teaching about Jerusalem would treat it as a city that is as holy to all three monotheistic religions, rather than just Islam. That's significant because Palestinian efforts to claim that shrines such as the Temple Mount and even the Western Wall are exclusively Muslim were part of a campaign of incitement that led to the recent "stabbing intifada." Perhaps just as significant is that the new texts would also seek to correct gender bias that was part of the old books.
But rather than welcome reform, the Palestinian Authority has reacted with fury. Last week, the PA announced that it was suspending ties with UNRWA over the proposed changes, which have yet to be formally announced. It said the revisions to the curriculum were an "affront to the Palestinian people, its history and struggles" and that the suspension would continue until the agency's "positions are corrected."
The PA Education Ministry issued the following statement: "Any distortion of the Palestinian curriculum is a flagrant violation of the laws of the host country, and any change to any letter to appease any party is a betrayal of the Palestinian narrative and the right of the Palestinian people under occupation to preserve its identity and struggle."
The implications of the PA position for the prospects for peace in this or future generations cannot be overestimated.
For more than a century, Palestinian national identity has been inextricably tied to the war on Zionism. Throughout two decades of failed peace negotiations, the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority has consistently rejected Israeli offers of independence that would obligate it to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state within any borders. Any chance that this will change rests not so much on more Israeli concessions but on a sea change in Palestinian political culture. Leaving aside the role of Hamas, unless the PA's future leaders are able to embrace peace without fear that doing so will be seen as a betrayal, the failure of more talks is foreordained. UNRWA's proposed changes are a step in the right direction. The PA's opposition is more proof that it is an obstacle to any hope for a better life for both Israeli and Palestinian children.
Jonathan S. Tobin is the opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter @jonathans_tobin.
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