Gaza's Hamas authorities have blocked a UN refugee agency from introducing textbooks promoting human rights into local schools, saying it ignores Palestinian cultural mores and focuses too heavily on "peaceful" means of conflict resolution.
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Motesem al-Minawi, spokesman for the Hamas-run Education Ministry, said Thursday that the government believes the curriculum does not match the "ideology and philosophy" of the local population.
He said the textbooks, used in grades 7 through 9, did not sufficiently address Palestinian suffering and did not acknowledge the right to battle Israel. "There is a tremendous focus on the peaceful resistance as the only tool to achieve freedom and independence," he said.
Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, says that "armed resistance" is a key component of its struggle against Israel.
The group also objected to the books' inclus ion of the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," a document approved by the UN General Assembly in 1948 that recognizes "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." Hamas believes that certain parts of the declaration violate Islamic law, including the right of people of different faiths to marry and the right to change one's religion.
Al-Minawi said government officials had met with UNRWA officials and offered to form a joint committee to revise the book. Adnan Abu Hassna, a local UNRWA spokesman, confirmed that the curriculum had been suspended while the sides work out their differences.
The spat is just the latest in a line of disagreements between Hamas and UNRWA.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, assists Palestinian refugees and their descendants throughout the region. In Gaza, the agency runs some 245 schools serving more than 232,000 students, dozens of medical clinics and distributes food to m any of the territory's 1.7 million residents.
But Hamas has frequently squabbled with UNRWA in a rivalry for the hearts and minds of Gaza's people. Hamas has pressed the UN not to organize mixed folkloric dancing for boys and girls; to keep Holocaust education out of its curriculum and it has used harsh rhetoric against previous senior UN officials. Last year, UNRWA canceled its annual Gaza marathon after Hamas banned women from participating.
UNRWA has taught human rights education in schools across the region for more than a decade. The agency bases its studies on the local curriculum of the host government, but often enhances its courses if it believes there are shortcomings. It has added certain elements in Gaza, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since Hamas seized power in 2007.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the agency, said UNRWA has "no plans to change its education programs in Gaza," though he said the agency would have furth er discussions with Hamas. He said the curriculum had been developed with educators, parents groups, teachers and others.
"We have done our utmost in developing these materials to be sensitive to local values while also being true to the universal values that underpin the work of the United Nations," he said.
Salim Abdel Khaleq, a 48-year-old father of eight, including three young children in UNRWA schools, urged the agency to find a middle ground. He said he supported introducing his children to new ideas, as long as they fit into local cultural norms.
"UNRWA should work on the subject with the government and avoid this headache every year," he said. "We respect UNRWA, but they must respect our history as well."