Palestine Pulse

How textbooks became latest battleground of Mideast conflict

Article Summary
Palestinians feel that Arab official circles are neglecting their cause, as the Israeli narrative is increasingly promoted in schoolbooks.

Palestinians are proud of the Arab public support for their cause, which can be detected in the intermittent protests that take to the streets in solidarity with them. In October 2015, protests were staged in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco to support the wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis, which broke out early October of that year. Protests also took place in Arab countries to support Palestinians during the 2014 Israeli war on the Gaza Strip.

Public sympathy, however, outweighs the interest of the official regimes, which have been distracted from the Palestinian cause. Palestinians are worried that their cause might be losing momentum on the agendas of Arab politicians.

On Oct. 6, the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education called on several of its Arab counterparts to recall textbooks with which Arab students in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain study because they offend the Palestinian people. The ministry demanded holding the people in charge of adopting the books accountable, because they contradict Palestinian religious and national values and describe resistance as terrorism.

Al-Monitor tried to contact officials from the Ministry of Higher Education in Ramallah to find out more about the ministry's call to education ministries in some Arab countries such as Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE.

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But the officials refused to add anything to the published statements, out of fear of giving a misinterpretation, which would push the Palestinian Authority (PA) into a political crisis with other Arab states.

The Palestinian ministry's accusations were targeted at educational institutions affiliated with the International School of Choueifat (SABIS), which is based in Lebanon and has several branches across Arab countries. It includes a group of international schools in the Middle East and was first established in Lebanon in 1886; it then expanded its horizons to the Arab Gulf and the Middle East.

The said errors figured on several pages, including page 166 of the history book written by British writer Aaron Wilkes from Oxford University. He said that Palestinians were committing suicide operations and claiming that Israeli territories are their land. The book also said that Palestinians are terrorists who carry explosive material that are hidden on the bodies of the attacker.

Ayman al-Yazouri, the deputy undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education in Gaza, expressed to Al-Monitor his fears that there are "Arab political inclinations to promote the Israeli side of the story in school curricula. There are international schools in several Arab countries that might leak wrong information about the Palestinian cause and highlight the Israeli narrative.”

As soon as the Palestinian demand to recall the textbooks was voiced, SABIS schools in Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were warned by the ministries of education in these countries that the judiciary in those countries may take legal measures against them if they do not withdraw the books from all their branches. The school expressed its resolve to sue the British Oxford University Press that supplied the book and not to tolerate this error.

Abdel Rahman al-Jamal, the head of the Education Committee at the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), told Al-Monitor, "Palestinians are concerned about a possible intellectual and political invasion of Arab curricula on the Palestinian cause. They believe it is an attempt to make it forgotten and absent in the minds of future generations. Besides, the recurrence of such behavior in Arab curricula proves that this was not a spontaneous mistake. Academic experts committed this error deliberately, following Arab politicians' orders, to cave to pressure from Western and Israeli parties and steer clear of transmitting national values to students in Arab schools."

Arab activists recently expressed their distress on social media outlets because of the book's content. They shared a photo of an English-language book that is taught at SABIS and that includes the following sentence: "Suicide bomb explosives are attached to the bomber's body. They approach their target and detonate the bomb. Palestinian terrorists are well-known for this."

Qatari journalist Adnan Abu Hleil told Al-Monitor, "The private and international schools' policy in Arab countries aims at promoting the Israeli side of the Palestinian conflict narrative. This has been seen in several courses like English and social studies. It is not a whimsical mistake because Arab political circles market this Israeli narrative of the Palestinian cause. As a result, Arab ministries of education have to monitor what is taught in their educational institutions."

Arab schools did not only offend Palestinians in their curricula. On Sept. 27, Qatar warned the British Doha College after the school raised the Israeli flag in its playground at the onset of the school year and ignored the Palestinian flag.

On Sept. 17, a school in Kairouwan province in Tunisia forbade a student from entering his class because he insisted on wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh. On Sept. 16, Algeria witnessed a wave of anger after labeling Israel instead of Palestine on the map of Arab nations. As a result, the public demanded dismissing Minister of National Education Nouria Benghabrit. But despite the Algerian parliament's demand on Sept. 19 to dismiss Benghabrit, she remains in her position.

In early September, the Jordanian government amended the school curricula to include paragraphs of normalization with Israel. This sparked anger among Jordanians.

A former Palestinian minister of higher education told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "It is perplexing that Arab states monitor all publications that enter their territories, especially books with political content. It is likely that these states are aware of the content of their curricula and overlooked the erroneous concepts. But — facing Palestinian calls — those states had to review the curricula against their will. Some of the states that offended the Palestinian cause have good relations with Israel, like Jordan and some Gulf countries."

Perhaps this is the first time that schools in Arab states promote the Israeli side of the Palestinian conflict narrative, amid increasing rapprochement between Israel and several Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council and Maghreb countries in the past few months.

Abdel Mo’ti Agha, a curriculum professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, told Al-Monitor, "The Arab education ministries have the authority to monitor school curricula in all their aspects, including the book cover, and ensure that the content does not contradict the state's policy. Political, historical and national publications are especially delicate and supervised. Therefore, I think there was implicit, undeclared agreement from the Arab governments on the content of the textbooks."

Some Palestinians fear that the declining official Arab interest in their cause might be a prelude to a setback in public interaction with them through schools and educational curricula. The Arab ministries of education are decreasing the educational content related to the Palestinian cause in Arabic textbooks. They might even be promoting the Israeli narrative of the Palestinian conflict at the expense of the Palestinian one. And Palestinians are unhappy with this situation.

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Found in: terrorism, schools, propaganda, palestinian cause, israeli-palestinian conflict, israel-gaza war, education, arab countries

Adnan Abu Amer heads the Political Science and Media Department of Umma University Open Education in Gaza, where he lectures on the history of the Palestinian cause, national security and Israel studies. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also works as a researcher and translator for a number of Arab and Western research centers and writes regularly for a number of Arab newspapers and magazines.

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