UN to teach children about Holocaust in Gaza schools

Donald Macintyre reveals plans opposed by Hamas to include Jewish tragedy in UN secondary school lessons

The United Nations' refugee agency is planning to include the Holocaust in a new human-rights curriculum for pupils in its Gaza secondary schools despite strident opposition to the idea from within Hamas.

John Ging, the UN Relief and Works Agency's (UNRWA) director of operations in Gaza, told The Independent that he was "confident and determined" that the Holocaust would feature for the first time in a wide-ranging curriculum that is being drafted.

Mr Ging, a passionate advocate for Palestinian civilians in Gaza who has recently faced increasingly personal criticism and even threats by elements in the Islamic faction, added: "No human-rights curriculum is complete without the inclusion of the facts of the Holocaust, and its lessons."

The draft, to be completed within weeks and then put out for consultation with parents and the public, is built on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was agreed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 in the shadow of what it called the "barbarous acts" committed by the Nazis during the Second World War.

The one-time Irish Army officer has long been an outspoken critic of Israeli policy towards Gaza, including the conduct of last winter's lethal military offensive and what he described more than once in his interview as the "illegal siege".

Mr Ging said the curriculum would explain the genesis, and "inculcate the values" of the Universal Declaration which stipulates that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". He pointed out that the UN General Assembly in 2005 unanimously urged "all countries to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to children so that we learn from history, so that we don't repeat history".

Although the UNRWA director strongly emphasised that the de facto Hamas government had not sought to interfere with the agency – which is responsible for the welfare of some 1 million Gaza refugees – other figures in the movement have angrily condemned the idea of including the Holocaust in any part of the curriculum. Yunis al Astal, a religious leader and a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said last month that it would be "marketing a lie" and a "war crime" to do so.

Mr Ging said the new curriculum would also include "tangible examples" of other "blights and stains in human history". He added: "We want to succeed with the active support of the civilian population who want their children to be part of the civilised world and who have no interest in challenging globally accepted facts; no more than ... they start challenging whether the earth goes round the sun, or Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or the killing fields of Cambodia, or the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans, or the genocide in Rwanda, or apartheid in South Africa; or, for that matter, the Nakba." The last event on his list was the Palestinians' "day of catastrophe", the flight or forced expulsion of some 700,000 refugees in the 1948 war which saw the foundation of Israel.

He continued: "This is also part of the frustration here. There are so many global tragedies and travesties that are learned worldwide. Who learns about the Nakba? Again [that is] a very reasonable and legitimate demand but it's not 'either/or'; it's both."

Mr Ging added that UNRWA wanted to teach children that "those who fight for justice must fight with justice – lawful actions are the only way to prevail". "The children of Gaza need this more than children elsewhere, because their daily experience is not giving them the example they need to have," he said. He cited the struggles led by such figures as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela who "eventually prevailed".

"We also want to teach them what he did when he prevailed," he explained. "He didn't seek retribution. He fought for human rights for all South Africans not just for black South Africans."

He added that the curriculum would also seek to demonstrate that war crimes, such as those in Rwanda and in the Balkans, can be punished by international law. "We are not seeking to transform the value system of the people of Gaza. We're seeking to protect the value system of the people of Gaza, and that's why the community will support us."

He argued that tackling the issue "would be so simple if we didn't have the illegality of the [Israeli-imposed] siege ... and the war and all the other illegalities that are the daily life of Palestinians here in Gaza", such as, "the fishermen not being allowed out to fish, sanitation not working, water being undrinkable, the private sector having lost all of the jobs and the dignity of work, students not being able to travel out of Gaza, sick people being trapped in Gaza.

"[It] is a seemingly endless list of travesty and injustice but we can't wait for those to be righted before we also do more to counter the effect of all that." Mr Ging said that the human-rights component in the existing curriculum had not been adequate to tackle topics of concern in Gaza, including the illegality of firing rockets, the issue of what constituted lawful resistance, and the effect of propaganda and "anti-Semitic rhetoric".

Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan last night declined to comment.

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