Education watchdog warns: Exposed UNRWA-Hamas links ‘just a drop in the ocean’

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Education watchdog warns: Exposed UNRWA-Hamas links ‘just a drop in the ocean’

Report finds some 10 percent of UNRWA employees in Gaza have ties to the two terrorist groups and that “half have relatives” in Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Palestinians receive aid packs from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Palestinians receive aid packs from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

An international education watchdog which has for years been monitoring UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, has warned that “what we are hearing now about the symbiotic relationship between UNRWA and Hamas is just a drop in the ocean. There is so much more to come out.” 

Marcus Sheff, chief executive of IMPACT-se, which looks at the educational content of textbooks in the Arab world, warned, “Israel is in for a really long battle” when it comes to reforming UNRWA. But, he told Jewish News: “It’s a battle that has to be fought, or we are doomed to repetition of terror attacks, large, small or unthinkable, like 7 October.”

Sheff, who is due to give testimony to the US Congress foreign relations committee on Tuesday, was speaking after 10 funding countries and rising announced that they would suspend funding to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, in the wake of revelations about UNRWA employees’ ties to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an intelligence document based on “sensitive signals intelligence, as well as surveillance of mobile phones, investigations of captured Hamas terrorists, documents found on terrorists who were killed, and more”, indicates that about 10 percent of UNRWA employees in Gaza have ties to the two terrorist groups — and that “half of them have relatives” in Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

Among the evidence assembled in the intelligence report were the names of 12

Palestinian school girls watch a press conference by UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl during his visit to an UNRWA school in Gaza City. Credit: Wissam Nassar/dpa/Alamy Live News

employees, one of whom was said to have kidnapped a woman. Another is said to have handed out ammunition. A third was described as taking part in the massacre at one of the Gaza envelope kibbutzim.

From cross-checking computer information and mobile phone texts, and from interrogating some of those taken prisoner by the IDF, Israel put together a damning picture. Israeli intelligence officers had established the movements of six of the men inside Israel on October 7 based on their phones; others had been monitored while making phone calls inside Gaza during which, Israel says, they discussed their involvement in the Hamas attack.

Three others got text messages ordering them to report to designated meeting points on 7 October, and one was told to bring rocket-propelled grenades stored at his home, according to the dossier. Seven of the men named are understood to have been teachers in UNRWA schools, instructing young Palestinians in maths and Arabic, while others worked in the schools in other roles.

It was this information which Israel shared with the US government, after which America suspended funding, and other countries, including the UK, followed suit. America has been the biggest financial backer of UNRWA with $344 million in 2022, while the UK gave $21 million in the same year — and as recently as September 2023, Britain announced a £10 million funding boost to UNRWA after then foreign secretary James Cleverly visited refugee camps in the region.

The UN secretary-general, Antonio Gutteres, confirmed that there was an investigation into these claims, saying that nine of the employees had been fired, one was dead, and “the identity of the two others is being clarified”. Israel also alleged that UNRWA facilities were used for “terrorist purposes.”

But UNRWA officials told CNN about this claim: “We don’t have more information on this at this stage. The Office of Internal Oversight Services (the internal oversight body of the UN) will look into all these allegations as part of the investigation the Commissioner General of UNRWA has requested them to undertake.”

UNRWA diploma found in vehicle of Hamas terrorists who took part in October 7 massacre. Pic: IMPACT-se

IMPACT-se has been warning for years that UNRWA’s educational materials were “problematic” and that their “extreme radicalism” would “encourage young people to commit violent acts”. UNRWA school textbooks — the majority of UNRWA’s budget is spent on educational staff and materials — tell young people to “cut the necks of the enemy”, that “jihad and martyrdom are the most important meanings of life”, that “Jews are liars and fraudsters and should be annihilated”, Sheff said.

He told Jewish News: “If you are indoctrinating young people day after day, and you are as authoritative as the schoolroom is, don’t be surprised if something terrible happens — and that terrible thing happened on 7 October. The majority of schools in Gaza are UNRWA schools, and you don’t have to be a political genius to figure that the majority of the 7 October terrorists were educated in those schools. They were prepared, primed to carry out those acts, because they were told, year after year, that this was not only OK, but their duty.”

Sheff said the scale of the co-ordination between Hamas and UNRWA “did not come as any great surprise to us”. He added that despite UNRWA’S “slick PR machine”, he did not believe that the closeness between the two bodies was a surprise to UNRWA’S commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, either.

Lazzarini, however, described the decision to suspend funding as “shocking”, saying that “these decisions threaten our ongoing humanitarian work across the region including and especially in the Gaza Strip”. *

Sheff was scathing: “The idea that it is UNRWA or chaos, is something which is perpetuated by UNRWA.” He acknowledged that there had been previous funding freezes, but that problems were usually ascribed to “a few rotten apples” and that matters swiftly returned to “business as usual”.

This time, he said, Israel could not afford to return to business as usual. “It is no longer simply a matter of corruption. It is dangerous.”

A flag map of the Middle East inside an UNRWA-produced textbook shows a blank space on Israel’s territory. (IMPACT-se via JTA)

In the immediate short term, Sheff said, “the first and simplest thing to do is to change the textbooks. It can be done, easily. We cannot lose generation after generation to terror. Even if it is assumed that UNRWA is going to be in teaching in schools in the next weeks, why cannot pressure be brought to bear on the teachers, and on the curriculum, so that they are no longer teaching hate? Why is that so complicated?”

Asked how it would be possible to police the teaching of a changed curriculum in UNRWA’s 162 Gaza schools, Sheff replied: “This is the heart of the problem. If we cannot trust UNRWA to institute this [changed] curriculum rather than the hateful curriculum they are teaching now, then we cannot trust UNRWA at all. We cannot trust them not to teach hate: it is their status quo ante”.

*Philippe Lazzarini’s predecessor, Pierre Krahenbuhl, who resigned after allegations of internal corruption, has been named as the next director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, beginning in April.

Grade 5 Arabic reading comprehension exercise taught in UNRWA schools praising terrorists Khalid ibn al-Walid and Izz ad-Din al-Qassam as a “heroes”. Pic: IMPACT-se
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