Is the decision to renew US funding to UNRWA consistent with US law?
The Biden administration recently announced that it will contribute an additional US$135.8 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN body that exclusively serves the Palestinian refugees. According to the announcement, the latest sum will be additional to the initial US$150 million pledged by the US in April and the US$33 million pledged following the May war. The contribution was made possible after the signing of a new framework agreement between the US and UNRWA. While the process would appear to be a reflection of good governance and diligence, in practice, the decision to renew US funding to UNRWA raises a number of pressing issues.
While US law does not limit the amount of aid the administration can give to UNRWA, the law requires that prior to the initial obligation of funds the Secretary of State report to the Appropriations Committees on a number of subjects. Of the different requirements, two subjects are of particular importance.
What materials are being taught in UNRWA schools?
One of the preconditions for US aid to UNRWA, set out in the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, requires the Secretary of State to report to the Committees on Appropriations on whether UNRWA is “taking steps to ensure the content of all educational materials currently taught in UNRWA-administered schools and summer camps is consistent with the values of human rights, dignity, and tolerance and does not induce incitement.”
There is no objective way that the Secretary of State could have certified that the materials taught in the UNRWA schools in the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority meet the standard set or that UNRWA was taking the steps necessary to ensure meeting the standard.
In 2017, a dispute arose between UNRWA and the PA regarding the new school textbooks the PA had released. Having reviewed the textbooks, UNRWA approached the PA pointing to concrete examples of content included in the new books that breached the agency’s duty of neutrality. UNRWA then suggested specific changes.
The PA rejected all of UNRWA’s reservations and suggestions and demanded that the agency use the PA materials, without making any changes.
When UNRWA did not immediately agree to the PA dictates, the PA Ministry of Education decided to suspend all its relations with the agency. Instead of standing its ground, UNRWA capitulated and agreed to continue using the PA schoolbooks without any changes. A later additional attempt by UNRWA to mitigate the content of the schoolbooks was also rejected by PA
Multiple reports on the PA schoolbooks demonstrate their content does not meet the standard set by the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
A comprehensive report on PA schoolbooks commissioned by the EU found that some of the PA schoolbooks in use today include antisemitic content, present Palestinian violence and terror against Israelis as part of a “heroic struggle,” and deny the legitimacy of Israel's existence through maps that erase Israel and label the entire area “Palestine.” While the PA textbooks, affirm the importance of human rights in general, the notion is not carried through to a discussion of the rights of Israelis. According to the report, “Violence perpetrated by Palestinians, including violence against civilians, is presented as a legitimate means of resistance.”
While the EU commissioned report gave the PA curriculum an inherent discount, considering it in the context of “conflict”, similar comprehensive reports written by other organizations, such as IMPACT-se, have found that the PA school books are replete with antisemitism and have content that glorify and justify terror.
Since the PA forces UNRWA to use the PA schoolbooks, in order for the Secretary of State to report that UNRWA is taking the necessary steps to ensure that the educational materials taught in its schools meet the standard set by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, he would have had to report, that the UNRWA schools in the areas under the control of the PA no longer uses any of the PA schoolbooks.
All other mechanisms, such as an UNRWA evaluation of the educational materials, that do not include an express requirement that UNRWA schools not use the PA schoolbooks is clearly insufficient.
Is US aid being used by UNRWA to pay benefits to terrorists?
An additional prerequisite for US funding to UNRWA requires the Secretary of State to report on whether UNRWA is in compliance with section 301(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Section 301(c) provides that the US shall not make a contribution to UNRWA unless the agency takes “all possible measures to assure that no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerrilla type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”
While the “Palestine Liberation Army” – which was the military arm of the PLO – has practically ceased to exist, “other guerrilla type organization[s],” including, but not limited to, a Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade continue to exist and are actively engaged in acts of terror. All of these organizations, and others, are US designated terror organizations.
This provision requires UNRWA to actively vet all the UNRWA aid recipients to ensure that none of them are receiving military training. To meet the standard, among other potential measures, UNRWA could simply provide the list of all the UNRWA beneficiaries living in the Gaza Strip, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem to the Israeli authorities who would be able to identify the terrorist recipients. Notwithstanding the requirement and the different measures for its implementation, it would appear that the agency is not meeting this basic and elementary standard.
According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, dozens of Palestinian refugees, who were active terrorists, have been killed in different rounds of violence in the Gaza Strip. In the Hamas organized attempts to breach the barrier between Israel and the Gaza Strip, that started in March 2018, and the 2014 operation Protective Edge the Amit center identified 53 active terrorists killed, who were also refugees. In the May 2021 war, terrorists from Gaza fired over 4,300 missiles indiscriminately targeting Israel’s civilian population. According to the Amit Center, the list of terrorists killed during war included at least 11 terrorist-refugees. While the Amit Center statistics refer to the terrorist-refugees killed, it is clearly reasonable to assume that there were many other terrorist-refugees who were not killed.
In other words, there are clearly scores of terrorist-refugees who have, and are receiving military training from the terrorist organizations and are/were engaged in terrorism, these terrorist appear still to be benefiting and receiving aid from UNRWA.
Following the May 2021 conflict, UNRWA unreservedly announced on its Twitter account that the agency is providing cash assistance to families in Gaza whose houses were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.
Some of the houses destroyed or damaged undoubtedly belonged to the terrorist- refugees.
In anticipation of the renewal of the funding, the Biden administration reached, in June 2021, a new Framework for Cooperation agreement with UNRWA. While the agreement mentions the 301(c) requirements, the annex attached to the agreement titled “Activities related to conformance with U.S. funding conditions pursuant to section 301(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act”, substantially limits the requirements on UNRWA. Instead of ensuring that UNRWA vet every aid recipient, the annex merely requires UNRWA to conduct and document checks of Palestinian refugees “against the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List every six months.” The annex continues saying that “Upon the receipt of credible information that the beneficiaries have engaged in conduct of concern, conduct a fact-finding, assessment and denial of discretionary assistance to beneficiaries, as appropriate.”
The provisions of the annex in this respect suffer from a number of fundamental flaws:
1) While there are clearly thousands of terrorists in Gaza, the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List does not include one terrorist affiliated with either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or any other Palestinian terror organization.
2) Section 301(c) is not limited to terrorists who appear on the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List. Rather the section specifically refers to Palestinian terror groups.
3) Section 301(c) denies all US aid from terrorist refugees, not just “discretionary assistance.”
Since the underlying objective of US law is clearly to prevent internationally donated UNRWA funds from benefitting terrorists, in order for the Secretary of State to objectively report that UNRWA’s activities meet the standards set by the Foreign Assistance Act he would have to have explained what measures UNRWA has implemented to ensure that the beneficiaries of the agency’s funding are not terrorists, to explain how and why those measures have failed, and what additional measures UNRWA intends to implement in order to correct those failures.
As a general rule, the Secretary of State should demand that UNRWA’s measures to prevent the leakage of US aid to terrorists must be transparent and include a list of terrorist-refugees who are prohibited from receiving UNRWA funding.
Expanded background on the rift between the PA and UNRWA
In March 2017, Palestinian media reported on a rift between UNRWA and the PA that focused on the problematic nature of the PA schoolbooks. Evidence of the rift was reported by Amad, an independent Palestinian news website:
"[PA] Minister of Education Sabri Saidam emphasized that he adheres to the Palestinian curriculum as formulated by the [PA] Ministry of Education, and that he will not allow any change to the curriculum by UNRWA. Saidam said this in a letter that he sent to one of the participants in a meeting convened by the Central Council of Parents in the Gaza Districts and [the Council of Parents] in the Maghazi Refugee Camp…
The meeting participants discussed UNRWA's attempt to change the curriculum for grades 1–4 in the UNRWA schools.
Chairman of the Council of Parents in Maghazi and member of the Central Council of Parents in the Gaza Districts Wasef Abu Mashayekh explained the dangers of UNRWA changing the curriculum. He emphasized that the goal behind this is to erase the Palestinian identity. He also noted that the goal of these changes is to erase all of the Palestinian national symbols and features and harm the philosophical, moral, and national foundations of the curriculum, and first and foremost to erase the map of Palestine (i.e., the PA map of Palestine that presents all of Israel as "Palestine" together with the PA areas) and its name, to establish the existence of the 'Israeli' occupation on the Palestinian land, and [to claim] it has a right."
[Amad, Independent Palestinian news website, Mar. 21, 2017]
A report published days later expounded on the rift and gave examples of the changes UNRWA had made in the textbooks:
Headline: “In documents: Accusations against UNRWA for targeting the national aspect of the textbooks”
“Ever since the characteristics became clear of the new [textbook] edition that UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) has distributed to its teachers, which includes changes in the new textbooks for grades 1-4, a great indignation has arisen among all sectors of the Palestinian society who have said that these are changes that harm the Palestinian identity and perpetuate the occupation’s existence…
This is not the first time that UNRWA is accused of inserting terms into the Palestinian textbooks for students of its schools, as this matter came up several years ago when it tried to insert the term ‘Holocaust’ into the seventh grade national study material…
The [PA] Ministry of Education and Higher Education re-emphasized its firm opposition to any change or correction in the Palestinian textbooks, after it was disseminated that UNRWA is attempting to do this. The ministry said in a statement, a copy of which reached [the independent Palestinian news agency] Donia Al-Watan, that according to international law UNRWA must use the textbooks of the host country. The ministry explained that it will take ‘punitive steps’ against anyone who attempts to change the textbooks or manipulate them.
The ministry explained that any attempt to change the textbooks constitutes an attack against Palestine and a targeting and erasing of the national identity. It emphasized that what was reported indicates a direct targeting of the national aspect of the textbooks, in a manner that is consistent with the occupation’s plan that warps and distorts these books.
The ministry called on the [UNRWA] agency to clarify its position, to immediately turn to the relevant officials in the ministry, and not to submit to the pressures of the occupation, because our textbooks are a symbol of our sovereignty and we will never allow them to be targeted and warped.
It should be noted that [PA] Minister of Education [and Fatah Central Committee Deputy Secretary] Sabri Saidam said last Wednesday [March 22, 2017] that ‘The ministry will not agree to a change or distortion of textbooks by any institution, whether it is UNRWA or other bodies.’…
Head of the parents’ council at the UNRWA schools Zaher Al-Bana warned against the agency’s plan [and said that] ‘It erases the Palestinian identity through changes that it is attempting to insert into the textbooks.’
He said in a press statement: ‘The goal of the plan is to erase and replace every expression of the Palestinian identity and heritage, the map (i.e., the PA map of “Palestine” that presents all of Israel as “Palestine” together with the PA areas), Jerusalem, the racist separation fence, and so on, and to replace them with other terms.’
He added: ‘We as parents emphasized to UNRWA’s department of education that we do not agree to this and that we oppose this plan and will act to thwart it. If the existence of a book including these materials in the schools becomes known to us, we will take it and destroy it.’
He noted that the goal of the changes is ‘to brainwash the Palestinian students, to erase the culture of the [previous] generations and their connection to their homeland and cause, to establish the culture of normalization and living together in peace, and to distance the students from the Palestinian resistance.’
The edition and all of the study topics do not present the symbolism of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, but rather only as the city of the three monotheistic religions, while weakening the Islamic presence within it and not addressing the Israeli checkpoints that prevent the Muslims from reaching the holy city [of Jerusalem] (sic., Muslims in the West Bank are allowed to pass through the checkpoints to Jerusalem).
Likewise, any text connected to the occupation’s acts of oppression against the Palestinian people, like the racist separation fence, settlement, demolition of homes, daily executions, arrests, and the names of the Israeli detention centers, was erased and replaced.
In addition, the edition does not note Prisoner’s Day or names of prisoners, does not connect the Jordan Valley region to Palestine, and omits the Palestinian heritage.”
[Donia Al-Watan, Independent Palestinian news agency, Mar. 26, 2017]
Examples of the changes that UNRWA made were depicted in a number of images of pages from the PA textbooks showing the original edition on the left side (yellow label) with “The textbook before the change” written above it and the new edition with suggested UNRWA changes on the right (red label) with “The textbook after the change” written above it:
Image 1 above shows a page from the original textbook on the left with the PA map of “Palestine” that presents all of Israel and the PA areas as “Palestine”. The page on the right contains URNWA’s suggestions for changing it.
The text at the bottom of Image 1 reads: “The change: Replacing the map of Palestine in the first grade Arabic language book with a picture of a bird and a pumpkin”
The page before the change includes the following text in English: “Neutrality issue: A historical map used in a non-historical context. The map is used to teach the sound (ttee) in the word (Falastteen (Palestine)).”
The page shows the PA map of “Palestine” and below it the word “Palestine” and the letters “ttee.”
The page on the right with suggested changes by UNRWA includes the following text in English: “Alternative Scenario Present another word that demonstrates the same sound syllable (ttee). For example: (Yaqtteen) (i.e., “pumpkin” in Arabic), (Yatteer) (i.e., “fly” in Arabic) or the word (Falastteen) without the map.”
The page shows an image of a pumpkin and under it the word “Pumpkin” and the letters “ttee,” an image of a flying bird and under it the word “Fly” and the letters “ttee,” and a blank space and under it the word “Palestine” and the letters “ttee.”
Image 2 above shows the PA map of “Palestine” (on the left) being replaced by an image of hills (on the right).
The page before UNRWA’s suggested change includes the following text in English: “Neutrality issue: A poem illustrated by a historical map in a non-historical context.”
The page after the change includes the following text in English: “Alternative Scenario [Keep] the poem, but replace the illustration of a map with an image of the Palestinian hills.”
Image 3 above shows another suggested change in the textbook.
Text at bottom of image: “The change: Cancelling what is connected to ‘Palestinian Prisoner’s Day’ from one of the national education lessons for third grade”
Image 4 above shows another suggested change in the textbook to remove the PA map of “Palestine.”
Text at bottom of image: “The change: Removing the map of Palestine from one of the Arabic language lessons for fourth grade”
An additional response of the PA reported, the continuing PA concern:
Headline: "Al-Agha: UNRWA is obligated to implement the host government’s curriculum in its schools"
"PLO Executive Committee member and Director of the Department for Refugee Affairs Zakaria Al-Agha said: 'UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) is obligated to implement the host government’s curriculum in its schools.' This was during his meeting with the UNRWA crisis team, comprised of the national and Islamic factions, the students' parents, and the popular committees, which was meant to discuss everything regarding the changes in the UNRWA textbooks in the PA areas.
The crisis team expressed its concern about the fact that the UNRWA administration distributed an edition that includes instructions and dictates for the teachers to change some of the teaching methods, which constitutes a blow to the culture of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and this concern reflects the viewpoint of the teachers, parents, and students alike.
Al-Agha emphasized that the Department for Refugee Affairs is closely monitoring this matter, as it has held a number of discussions with Arab states that are hosting Palestinian refugees, with the UNRWA administration at all of its levels, and with Palestinian [PA] Minister of Education and Higher Education [Sabri Saidam].
He emphasized: 'There is an agreement that it is forbidden to make any change to the UNRWA curriculum, which is obligated to [follow] the curriculum set by the ministry of education in all of the Arab host countries. This has also been verified by the UNRWA administration - which said that no change will be made without consultation and prior coordination with the [PA] Ministry of Education and Higher Education and its counterparts in the Arab host countries - and also by the Arab host countries and Minister Sabri Saidam.’"
[Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Official PA daily, Apr 5, 2017]
The rift between UNRWA and the PA reached its pinnacle shortly after when the PA Ministry of Education announced that it was freezing its ties with UNRWA:
Headline: "The [PA] Ministry of Education has frozen its ties with UNRWA until further notice"
"The [PA] Ministry of Education and Higher Education yesterday [April 13, 2017] officially announced the freezing of its ties with UNRWA until its situation is settled. This is because the ministry is not convinced that the agency has taken back the changes that it made in the Palestinian textbooks.
The ministry emphasized that any distortion of the Palestinian textbooks constitutes a blatant violation of the host nation's laws, and that the changing of any letter in them in order to satisfy any party constitutes a betrayal of the Palestinian narrative and the right of the Palestinian people that is subject to occupation to maintain its identity and struggle, and to defend its way of struggle.
In his response to this position, [PA] Minister of Education and Higher Education Dr. Sabri Saidam emphasized that Palestine will surrender to no one and will not agree to trade in its honor through positions that constitute an insult to the Palestinian people, its history, and its struggles.
The ministry on Friday, March 24, 2017, warned the agency not to touch the Palestinian textbooks, and demanded that it consult with the relevant parties in the ministry. However, nobody in the agency heeded this warning, and the ministry did not receive any official correspondence on the matter."
[Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Official PA daily, Apr 14, 2017]
The freeze in the ties lasted only three days, when the PA Ministry of Education reported on UNWRA’s capitulation to the pressure of the PA.
“Commissioner-General of UNRWA Pierre Krähenbühl emphasized that UNRWA is completely committed to the Palestinian curricula, and that no change will be made in these curricula.
This was said this afternoon [April 17, 2017] in his meeting with [PA] Minister of Education and Higher Education Dr. Sabri Saidam…
On this matter, Saidam again emphasized the close and historical connection between the Ministry [of Education] and UNRWA, and the efforts to strengthen the connection in a manner that will ensure the benefit of the education given to the refugees’ children and the improvement of their results…
He also emphasized that the national curricula should be respected and any attempt that is liable to harm the curricula and their contents should be prevented.
Saidam emphasized that the ministry is interested in staying in contact with UNRWA at all levels in the education sector.
Krähenbühl explained that UNRWA is a central partner of the [PA] Ministry of Education, particularly in the field of teaching. He emphasized the right of the Palestinian children to receive a quality education and preserve the components of identity and culture. He also praised the active partnership between UNRWA and the ministry… and emphasized that any enrichment of the Palestinian textbooks will be done in coordination between the ministry and UNRWA.”
[Facebook page of the PA Ministry of Education, Bethlehem district , Apr 17, 2017]
Having capitulated to the demands of the PA in April 2017, UNRWA then attempted to circumvent the PA’s approach by adding “enrichment” materials to the PA curricula.
This initiative was met with similar PA objections, as reported in the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida on Nov. 8, 2017:
Headline: “The [PA] Ministry of Education reiterates its complete opposition to any step that harms the Palestinian curricula”
“The [PA] Ministry of Education and Higher Education reiterated its complete opposition to any step or attempt that UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) or any international body are liable to make against the Palestinian curricula – whether by omitting, changing, or adding any materials in contradiction of the philosophy of the [PA] curricula and in contradiction of the contents of the schoolbooks in everything connected to the national identity and cultural, social, and national heritage of our people.
The ministry stated in a notice yesterday [Nov. 7, 2017]: ‘In light of the talk about the UNRWA administration’s intention to add materials called “enrichment” material to our national curricula, the ministry explains that as part of the contacts made in the past with the UNRWA administration regarding the curricula, it was clearly and explicitly emphasized that it is necessary to be committed to the contents of the schoolbooks and their basic assumptions, and that all of the materials that UNRWA is interested in adding must be complementary and consistent with all of the contents of the schoolbooks.’
The ministry emphasized that all of the material that UNRWA is likely to add to the curricula must not harm the contents of those books, especially in light of the fact that according to international law, UNRWA is obligated to implement the curricula of the host countries. In the same context, it noted that the only body that has the right to change or add new materials to the curricula is the Curricula Center, which is under the [PA] Ministry [of Education and Higher Education].”
[Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Official PA daily, Nov 8, 2017]
A later report added further details:
Headline: “UNRWA’s enrichment materials: Changing the facts and tearing away the students from their reality”
“Around a week ago, UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) began to train several teachers working in its schools in the enrichment materials and activities that were added to the basic curriculum…
UNRWA began these trainings at the schools in the Gaza Strip. In the next stage they will also take place at the schools in the West Bank and diaspora – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; however, the materials that were added are arousing the anger of the teachers and the students’ parents, in whose opinion the concepts, pictures, and illustrations that they contain contradict the truth, distort history and the Palestinian identity, and contradict the thought and culture of the refugees in everything related to their right of return to their homeland, from which they were expelled.
Even though UNRWA Media Advisor Adnan Abu Hasna denied in a phone call that the materials that were added harm the Palestinian identity and history – because it is not within [UNRWA’s] authority to change and amend the [PA] Ministry of Education’s curricula, and because its schools are committed to conveying the curricula of the host states – the copies that we obtained of these materials prove the opposite. When we tried to talk with Abu Hasna about their contents, he refused to cooperate and answer any additional questions.
In one of the activities that were included in the Ministry of Education’s basic curriculum in the subject of National Education, ‘Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine’ was written under a picture of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque… But UNRWA replaced this with a picture under which is written ‘Color the wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.’
In the Science and Life 4th grade schoolbook, in one of the activities the students are asked to talk about malnutrition, and to use the suffering of the prisoners in the occupation’s prison as an example of this. However, according to the outlook of the UNRWA curriculum, this is not appropriate for study, and the activity was replaced with another activity in which the students are asked to find two reasons for malnutrition and note its effect on the human body while using the internet.
A picture that was included in the Arabic Language subject for the same grade, shows two young women stricken with fear as a result of Israeli bombing. The students are asked to explain what is seen in the picture, but in the [UNRWA] enrichment material three additional pictures were added, which show that in the end the cause of the fear was a doll thrown on the ground.
Likewise, in the Science and Life subject for 8th grade in one of the examples for the rise in air pollution a picture is used of smoke rising as a result of the bombs that Israel dropped on a residential neighborhood in the Gaza Strip during the attack it carried out in 2014 (i.e., 2014 Gaza war). However, in the enrichment material the example was smoke rising as a result of trees being burned in a forest, in a clear attempt to distort the truth and tear away [the students] from the reality that they experience daily.
Supreme Parents Council Secretary Muwaffaq Kafarneh responded by saying that the teachers refused to complete the training that UNRWA began, but [UNRWA] threatened them with punishment and dismissal from their positions if they do not do this. He emphasized that this is not the first time that UNRWA is trying to convey its policy through the curricula, and said that ‘[the curricula] are as far as possible from the truth that the young generation must know’…
[PA] Ministry [of Education] Spokesman Sadeq Khaddour emphasized that UNRWA must implement what was determined in the laws and regulations, and be strict about conveying the curricula of the host states. He expressed surprise at UNRWA’s attempt to bypass the Palestinian curricula by adding enrichment materials directed at the teachers…
He added: ‘UNRWA must stop [teaching] these materials. This is not the first time that it is attempting to change and amend the curricula, and it has no authority to do this, but it is still insisting on doing this again and again. We reject this idea entirely, and the topic will be dealt with before the UNRWA leadership in order to put an end to its actions.’
PLO Executive Committee member [and Secretary-General of the Palestinian Liberation Front] Wasel Abu Yusuf thinks that UNRWA needs to fulfill its central missions – providing aid to the refugees. He noted that the talk about changes and additions to the curricula are entirely unacceptable, and that this is interference in internal affairs. However, he did not hide that UNRWA is subject to pressures from the US and Israel, whose goal is to cancel its role and change the goal for which it was established… in order to erase the [Palestinian refugees’] right of return, which constitutes a real danger to the Palestinian cause.”
[WAFA, Official PA news agency, Nov. 9, 2017]
The following are some of the reports of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center that include the names of terrorist-refugees killed while engaged in terrorism: