Hamas protests UN plans to teach Holocaust in Gaza

Published 8:43 pm Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The United Nations has launched a new plan to teach the Holocaust in Gaza schools, drawing fierce condemnation from Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers, school teachers — and even the body tasked with peace negotiations with Israel.

If implemented, it would be the first time most Palestinian children learn about Jewish suffering. But the outcry underscores how sensitive the issue is to Palestinians.

“Playing with the education of our children in the Gaza Strip is a red line,” Hamas Education Minister, Mohammed Asqoul told a website of the group. He said Hamas will block attempts to teach the Holocaust “regardless of the price.”

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The uproar erupted after a U.N. official told a Jordanian daily in February that UNRWA, the main U.N. agency serving Palestinian refugees, would introduce a short case study about the Holocaust to Gaza students as part of its human rights curriculum.

“Instead of pre-emptive accusations, it is important for Palestinians … to fully understand the tragedies and suffering that happened to all people through generations, without divvying up facts and taking things out of context,” the official, Sami Mushasha, was quoted as saying.

UNRWA representatives refused to comment on the record, but one official said the agency was committed to introducing the curriculum for the next school year, beginning in September.

He added that officials were hesitating because they feared Hamas would incite loyalists to damage U.N. schools or harm their teachers if they introduce the materials. He requested anonymity because he was barred from discussing the matter with the media.

Hamas frequently accuses the U.N. of spreading immorality, and unknown assailants have attacked the agency’s property in the past, including the torching of summer camps last year.

Since Hamas seized power of Gaza in 2007, it has viewed the U.N. as the main challenger to their influence in the coastal territory. Officials have tried to limit the international group’s vast influence in Gaza, where it operates schools for some 200,000 children.

But the controversy over teaching the Holocaust in Gaza is more than a power struggle between the U.N. and Hamas.

Many Palestinians are reluctant to acknowledge Jewish suffering, fearing it would diminish recognition of their own claims. Views range from outright denial to challenging the scope of the Holocaust.

Even Hamas’ bitter enemy, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, reacted angrily to the U.N. plan. And the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the chief body tasked with negotiating peace with Israel, rejected the idea.

“Teaching the Holocaust to Palestinian students in U.N. schools is unacceptable,” said Zakaria al-Agha, a member of the PLO’s executive committee.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev called the Palestinian responses “obscene.” Israelis consider the Holocaust a central event in modern Jewish history.

Vice president Elan Steinberg of the U.S.-based American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants described the responses as a “reprehensible effort to inject political hate into a program whose basis is universal lessons of ethical behavior and human rights.”

Some 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II, and the need to find a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors contributed to Israel’s creation after World War II.

In a war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes.

The Palestinians call this dispersal their “Nakba,” or catastrophe, and many see the events linked. As such, recognizing the Holocaust is often seen as tantamount to acknowledging Jewish claims to the land.

Israeli officials have long said that Palestinian recognition of Jewish suffering is a necessary step toward peace. But for Gaza residents, empathy is particularly difficult: Most of the territory’s 1.5 million residents live in poverty, facing Israeli restrictions in commerce and travel, and hundreds of civilians were killed in an Israeli military offensive against Hamas two years ago, aimed at stopping daily rocket attacks at Israel by Gaza militants.

Yet even if the U.N. moves ahead with the plan this year, it could face another obstacle: its own schoolteachers.

In about a dozen interviews, they said they did not want to teach the materials and warned of rebellion.

“The agency will open the gates of hell with this step,” said one schoolteacher, Sami. “This will not work.”