GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza students won't learn about the Holocaust this year.
Angry protests by Palestinians have disrupted tentative plans to introduce information about the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews into the curriculum in U.N. schools.
The dispute touches on one of the largest psychological barriers dividing Arabs and Jews: Arabs see the Holocaust as an excuse for Israel's creation, and Jews see Arab Holocaust denial as a rejection of Israel's right to exist.
The uproar has left the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which runs 221 of more than 600 primary and secondary schools in Gaza, caught between the territory's Hamas leaders — some of them ardent Holocaust deniers — and outraged Jewish groups.
‘We are being bashed’
Some in Hamas accused the U.N. agency of trying to generate sympathy for Israel and conspiring against the Palestinians. In turn, Jewish activists demanded to know why the subject of the genocide wasn't part of the human rights syllabus in the first place.
"Now we are being bashed from all quarters," the agency's chief in Gaza, John Ging, told The Associated Press.
The controversy erupted last week, after an umbrella group for Palestinian refugees in Gaza protested what it said were plans to teach eighth-graders in U.N. schools about the Holocaust.
U.N. officials denied they had such intentions for this school year and insisted they weren't scaling back in response to public pressure.
Regional agency chief Karen Abu Zayd suggested information about the Holocaust could be included in later years, as part of lessons about the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNWRA's Web site mentions general plans to include the Holocaust in lessons on the "historical context that gave rise to" that declaration.
Abu Zayd said the UNWRA field office in Gaza is still developing the curriculum, which would be presented to parents and others in the community before it is introduced. "It is very much a draft," she said.
A U.N. employee involved in shaping the curriculum, who was not authorized to discuss the subject and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that as recently as three months ago, the lessons had been under consideration for the 2009-10 human rights course.
U.N. officials said their schools in Gaza already have the most detailed and advanced human rights courses, and teaching the Holocaust would break new ground.
Not taught in other U.N. schools
The subject is not taught in U.N.-run schools for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Nor is it taught in Palestinian government schools in the West Bank or Gaza.
The backlash in Gaza has highlighted why.
Holocaust denial is still common in the Palestinian territories, with many apparently fearful that acknowledging the genocide would diminish recognition of their suffering or claims to an independent state. Such sentiments seem particularly strong among Gazans, who have had only limited access to the outside world since 2007, when Israel and Egypt imposed a border blockade in response to the violent Hamas takeover of the territory.
Palestinians complain that Israel refuses to recognize their hardship, including the expulsion and exile of hundreds of thousands during the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948, which Palestinians refer to as the "naqba," or "catastrophe." Israel's education minister, Gideon Saar, decided this summer to delete references to the word "naqba" from textbooks for Arab third-graders in Israel, though he said teachers can discuss tragedies that befell the Palestinians.
Jihad Zakarneh, the deputy education minister in the West Bank, the territory run by Palestinian moderates, said teaching Palestinian children about the Holocaust has to wait until there is a peace agreement with Israel.
"When Israel ends its occupation of our land and our people and gives us our right of independence and self-determination, then we discuss this issue with them," he said.
Growing dispute with Hamas
The Gaza dispute over the syllabus also signaled growing tensions between Hamas and UNRWA, the largest independent organization in Gaza. Hamas has been trying to cement control over Gaza, while the U.N. agency is increasingly emerging as a shadow government, providing services to some 1 million of Gaza's 1.4 million people.
Ging said he believes the dispute over the syllabus has more to do with attempts by Hamas to meddle in the U.N. organization's affairs than with the Holocaust.
The U.N. schools in Gaza are required to follow the Palestinian curriculum but are allowed to make some changes, Ging said. The schools have added enrichment lessons on human rights since 2002, initially for elementary school students.
Ging said he feels any human rights course is incomplete without discussing the Holocaust. But, he said, it would exceed UNWRA's mandate to write texts about the Holocaust and the Palestinian uprooting, subjects he said are better left to Israelis and Palestinians as part of future peace efforts.
Critics of the U.N. said the events of the Holocaust cannot be omitted from a human rights curriculum.
"By disconnecting the Holocaust from human rights, (the U.N. agency) is highlighting the anti-Semitic bias that pervades the U.N. system," Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from Florida, said in a statement.
Advocates want funding suspended
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish advocacy group and tracker of Nazi war criminals, called for the dismissal of Abu Zayd and Ging and demanded the U.S. and Canada suspend funding for the U.N. agency — which provides services for Palestinian refugees around the Mideast — until the issue is sorted out.
The U.S. was the second-largest donor to the agency in 2008, giving it nearly $96 million of its $541.8 million budget. The European Commission was the largest donor, providing close to $140 million, according to U.N. figures.
Marie Okabe, a U.N. spokeswoman in New York, said the world body stands by Ging and Abu Zayd. "They are ably continuing their jobs and carrying the mandate to bring assistance to those in desperate need in the West Bank and Gaza," she said. "There is no truth" to accusations that "they are denying the Holocaust."
The criticism has been just as strong from the other side.
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the U.N. agency must stick to its mandate and not venture into politics.
Hamas rejects any attempt to introduce the Holocaust into the curriculum as "a kind of normalization with Israel and an attempt to bridge the psychological gap between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.
The Palestinian refugee group that first raised the proposed Holocaust lesson plans called the Nazis' attempt to eradicate European Jewry "a lie made up by the Zionists."
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