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Entrance to Aida Palestinian Refugee Camp near Bethlehem where refugees are educated at UNWRA schools. The key representing the right of return that says “not for Sale”
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Teaching The Right of Return in the UNWRA School System

Dr. Arnon Groiss, Israel, September 15, 2011

The essence of the Middle East conflict is the century-long struggle between Jews and Palestinian Arabs over one piece of land stretching between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, which both parties regard as their historic homeland. The United Nations Organization’s attempt in 1947 to solve the conflict by way of partition was rejected by the Arab side, which opened a war against the Jews in December that year. The war between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, to which five Arab armies joined in May 1948, lasted for sixteen months and ended in an Arab defeat. Both Jews and Palestinians lost in the war one percent of their respective populations. One of the results of that war was a mass exodus of Palestinians from areas taken over by the Jews, which later became part of the nascent State of Israel. In subsequent years, a parallel number of Jews came to Israel from the neighboring Arab countries, partly as a result of the deterioration of their conditions there following the war.
Te Palestinian and Arab narrative of the Middle East conflict emphasizes what is termed “the Right of Return” which is interpreted as the personal right of every Palestinian, who left his or her home in Palestine in 1948 or afterwards, to return to it and to reclaim his or her property in full. This perceived right also applies to the refugee’s descendants with no limit of number, time or place of birth.[1] Thus, the total number of such claimers has grown during the period that has passed since 1948 from few hundred thousands to several millions. Although said to have legally been based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on Resolution No. 194 adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 11, 1948,[2] it is clear that such a claimed right has no legal precedence in history and, indeed, has not been applied in other cases of wartime refugees throughout the twentieth century, which witnessed a record number of such refugees.
Apart from its unique character in international terms, the “Right of Return” also raises serious political and human problems, since its full application would mean the destruction of the State of Israel as a Jewish state and thus deny the Jewish nation its right to self-determination, which has been legally recognized by virtue of the UN partition resolution. Indeed, throughout the years that succeeded the establishment of Israel, the “Right of Return” issue was often mentioned in Arab forums within the wider context of the discussion of Israel’s liquidation. In Israeli eyes, therefore, the continued persistence on the “Right of Return” by any Arab party betrays that party’s desire to wipe Israel off the map. Any impartial observer must admit that such fears are solidly grounded in light of the human mass involved.
If peace in the region is meant to be concluded between the Jewish State and its Arab neighbors – and it is so meant internationally – then the “Right of Return” issue should not stand in the way to peace as it does today. That is especially important in school, in particular – schools that are run by an international body such as UNRWA, which is bound by UN resolutions regarding peace in the region and is expressly committed to the ideal of peace.[3]
This paper will try to find out whether UNRWA does follow its commitment as far as teaching of the “Right of Return” is concerned. At this point the discussion will be limited to UNRWA’s schools in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. In later phases this research will include as well UNRWA’s schools in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
UNRWA’s Educational System
UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestinian refugees in the Middle East – was established in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 by the UN General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) of December 8, 1948, in order to carry out relief and works programs for the Palestinian war refugees. The Agency began operations on May 1, 1950. In the absence of a solution to the refugee problem, the Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate.[4]
Over half of UNRWA’s general budget is dedicated to education (52% of a total of US$1.2 billion in 2009).[5] The Agency also offers health, relief and social services. UNRWA provides free-of-charge basic education to children of Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Israel-controlled East Jerusalem, and in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In the academic year of 2009/2010 it ran a total of 691 schools caring for 483,000 students. 228 of these schools were in the Gaza Strip and 97 were in the West Bank, with 206,000 and 56,000 students, respectively.[6] Two of UNRWA’s West Bank schools are actually located in the greater Jerusalem area which was annexed to Israel in 1967.
Basic education means both elementary and intermediate (also called “preparatory”) schools, that is, grade 1-9 or 10, depending on the specific school system in each country. Only in Lebanon does the Agency operate some nine high schools as well, since Palestinian students of these grades find it difficult to study in local public or private schools.[7]
The Agency maintains close cooperation with government educational authorities in its various areas of operation. Students at UNRWA schools study the same curriculum and use the same books authorized by the host governments (except for East Jerusalem where the PA curriculum and books have been adopted for use instead of the Israeli ones).
Beside the schoolbooks issued by the respective national authorities with no involvement on UNRWA’s part, the Agency has published several textbooks of its own which teach issues such as tolerance and human rights in its schools, as it testifies: “One of our key progammes promotes h
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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