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A fine line between Palestinian remembrance, radicalization
Lee Berthiaume--January 19, 2011
Embassy photo: Lee Berthiaume
A Child is Like a Blade: Ten-year-old Hala Mohammed Harb recites a poem about resisting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza at a UN school for Palestinian refugees in Amman, Jordan. Canada has begun moving away from the UN agency that runs the schools after 60 years of support.
A fine line between Palestinian remembrance, radicalization
AMMAN, Jordan—The schoolyard teems with young girls in blue uniforms, some sporting headscarves, most carrying backpacks, all of them smiling. Shaded from the hot Middle Eastern sun by a structure of corrugated metal, one class runs around in circles, playing a game. Next to them, a teacher leads another class through morning stretches and jumping jacks.
Inside the two-storey building, the majority of the students at Nuzha Prep Girls` School are in classes, but in one room, a special meeting of the institution`s Parliament on Human Rights and Women`s Issues has been arranged in honour of my visit. This student council-like body features many of the school`s top students.
As I enter, I am surprised to be greeted by several of the girls in English. I am led to a special seat at the front of the classroom. Then the nearly two-dozen girls who make up the parliament take their own seats, which have been set up in a horseshoe. The teachers, all wearing headscarves, take up positions in the background.
Unsure how to start, I ask what the girls think of their school. After a slight hesitation, a few raise their hands.
`I`m so happy when I come to school,` responds one 12-year-old in English. Another, however, complains in Arabic through a translator that there was a shortage of textbooks at the beginning of the school year. Then I get an answering I wasn`t expecting.
`I don`t care about the school,` says one girl. `I want to be in Palestine, my homeland.`
If it weren`t obvious from the bright blue and white sign outside, the girl`s answer makes it readily apparent that this isn`t just any school in Jordan. Rather, this is one of 691 educational institutions across the Middle East run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a special agency set up specifically to support the more than 4.7 million registered Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA also operates 137 primary health clinics, one of which is located right next door to the Nuzha Prep school.
Canada has helped pay for this school and the clinic, if only indirectly. It has been contributing millions of dollars to UNRWA each year since 1950, when the agency was established to provide emergency relief and support to Palestinians displaced by the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Altogether, Canada has alternated between being UNRWA`s sixth- and seventh-largest donor.
But a year ago this month, the Harper government quietly stopped providing core budget support to UNWRA, switching all funding to food aid instead. In practical terms, that meant Canada was no longer giving money on an ongoing basis to help pay the salaries of 30,000 teachers, doctors and other staff members, build schools and health clinics, or provide text books, medical equipment and other necessary supplies.
Many interpreted the move as the first step in Canada`s disengagement from the agency—and, by proxy, a move away from supporting Palestinians.
The decision was met with surprise, particularly given Canada`s decades-long support, its traditional interest in Palestinian refugee issues—and because the action was taken unilaterally and without previous warning.
In response, UNRWA staff said the agency, already struggling with a $90-million shortfall, desperately needed ongoing Canadian budgetary support—and worried other donors would follow suit. Jordan`s ambassador to Canada took the unprecedented step of admitting the issue was a concern to the highest levels of his government. Behind the scenes, other donors were reportedly grumbling.
The Harper government has refused to provide any real explanation for the move, aside from saying the decision was made simply to align Canada`s contributions to UNRWA with CIDA`s food security agenda. Many, including both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups, haven`t bought that explanation. Yet that`s where any agreement ends, and the girls of Nuzha Prep and other UNRWA schools come in.
`But in Gaza!`
UNRWA introduced human rights curriculum in 2002, and it was immediately met with controversy. According to a local director in Jordan speaking on background, some parents, teachers and even international observers worried what would be taught, others what wouldn`t be included.
Sitting in the Nuzha Prep classroom, surrounded by smiling faces from the school`s Parliament on Human Rights and Women`s Issues, I ask the girls what human rights they have learned about. Hands shoot up and the answers come quickly: the right to play; to live peacefully; to security and equality; to protection from torture and slavery.
Yet one answer keeps coming up over and over: the right to return to Palestine. In fact, the girls invariably tie the other human rights they have learned about to the homeland they say they desperately wish to see.
`Here in Jordan, we have all the rights,` says one girl. `But I want to remember the children in Palestine. They do not have the ability to laugh.`
Ten-year-old Hala Mohammed Harb is clearly the smallest girl in the parliament. With her big brown eyes and a shy smile, she slowly approaches me and says through an interpreter that she would like to re-enact a poem. The name of the piece, says the interpreter, is A Child is Like a Blade.
What follows is unexpected and requires no translation. Hala`s young face takes on a surprising hardness, her body movements become militaristic and martial in tone as she mimics defying the Israeli occupiers, raising a flag over a free Palestinian state that she will call home. She is unwavering in her conviction, forceful in the telling.
When it ends, the other students erupt into applause and Hala returns to her shy schoolgirl persona. The teachers are beaming with pride.
A little later, I am led to a science lab. Two rows of long metal tables run down either side of the room, with high benches behind them, while the walls are covered with diagrams showing human organ systems. A computer has been set up at the front and is connected to a projector hanging from the roof.
An audio-visual presentation begins, and amid Arabic music, a picture of smiling children is projected onto the blackboard under the words: `My right to live a happy life!` A few seconds later, three more words appear underneath: `But in Gaza!`
Another picture of smiling children who look to be of North American or European descent. The words: `My right to play!` Then the image changes to show Palestinian children on the street, clothes ripped, skin covered with dirt. `But these people, where`s their right?` the presentation asks.
It continues like this. Pictures of happy white children and families give way to the image of an old Palestinian woman in tears supporting herself with an olive tree, an Israeli military patrol in the background. Another shows Israeli soldiers in a classroom, books and broken desks strewn around the room. The presentation ends with the words: `We will not give up!`
Judging by the video presentation, and the fact that it was put together at the school and clearly bears Nuzha Prep`s name on the credits, it would be easy to say the school`s teachers are responsible for the content, which some could easily interpret as borderline incitement.
Yet when asked who has told them about Palestine, the students offer a number of answers that revolve around the same people: Their families. Grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, fathers, mothers, brothers.
`We live the dream that our grandparents could not,` says one girl.
In fact, few of the students, if any, have ever seen what they repeatedly call `home.` They were born in Jordan. Many of the students` parents weren`t born in the Palestinian Territories either. The first Palestinian refugees were primarily older family members who fled during the war between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1948 or, more recently, the Six-Day War in 1967.
Does this mean they aren`t really refugees? Or even Palestinian?
There are some who believe that UNRWA has, in the words of B`Nai Brith Canada executive vice-president Frank Dimant, `become an industry unto itself.` The argument is that as long as the UN agency survives, Palestinian refugees will be able to continue identifying themselves as such instead of assimilating into whatever culture or place they have moved to.
At the same time, people like Mr. Dimant argue, by supporting the Palestinian refugees and not forcing host governments to deal with them, an invisible barrier is created between the Palestinians and the local population, be they Jordanians, Syrians or Lebanese.
The UN High Commission for Refugees has three stated solutions for dealing with refugees, a fact confirmed with UNHCR in Ottawa. The preferred option, which the agency encourages, is voluntary repatriation, providing it is safe and their reintegration is viable. `We don`t even say that,` says a senior UNRWA official in an interview in Jerusalem a few days later.
Yet the official says the agency also isn`t about to tell those it supports to stop identifying themselves as refugees or Palestinians, to begin focusing on a new future in their new homelands.
`I don`t think it`s our role to tell them: `You know, you should give up on that,` the official says. `We just want to teach them to read and write and prepare them for life.`
Measuring the costs
Next door to the Nuzha Prep Girls` School is the Nuzha Health Centre. Past the gates and inside the building`s white walls, old men sit on benches, waiting to be seen by a doctor. Further back, young mothers sit with children on their laps amid pregnant women waiting for a check-up. While the centre provides basic health care to about 56,000 people, the primary focus is maternal and child health. On one side of the clinic, a nurse calls patients` names to distribute free prescription medication through a window.
In explaining the funding change in January 2010, CIDA Minister Bev Oda`s spokesman, Jean-Luc Benoît, said that `there are all sorts of rumours. But I think people are reinventing the wheel. There is a need, it`s part of our priorities, so we said `Fine, our $15 million will go towards food aid....` There`s nothing else there.`
Some could consider that answer, however, to be disingenuous. First, Canada gives core funding to a wide range of multilateral organizations that don`t fit neatly into CIDA`s priorities. With that in mind, the West Bank and Gaza have been identified as a priority region for Canada`s aid agency.
At the same time, children and youth have been identified as a CIDA priority, while maternal and child health is also a major focus. UNRWA, through its schools and health clinics, does both. And if the UN agency doesn`t do them, then someone else will have to.
In an interview with Embassy in May, after Canada announced its decision not to provide anymore core funding to UNRWA, then-Jordanian ambassador Nabil Barto said international assistance to UNRWA from countries like Canada is essential.
By the numbers, the agency`s core budget last year was just over $600 million, of which $336 million was spent on education, $101 million on health and $48 million on other social services. (These figures include only core activities, not emergency appeals.)
According to UNRWA figures, the agency`s budget in Jordan was $115 million last year, of which $98 million was for education and health.
Last month, the Jordanian government unveiled its 2011 budget, which stood at US$8.8 billion. This included a $1.5-billion deficit. Meanwhile, its public debt grew from 58.3 per cent of GDP in 2008 to 64.7 per cent in 2009. What impact would there be with an addition $115 million?
Difficult to say, but in many ways, the issue isn`t about money, at least not in Jordan. Arguably more pressing is the political difficulties associated with Palestinian refugees continuing to reside in that country.
For example, it is estimated that about half of Jordan`s 6 million people consider themselves Palestinian refugees. There is a growing sense that the Palestinian-Jordanians are being intentionally under-represented in government for fear giving them more power could shake the country`s moderate policies in the region or lead to Jordan becoming a virtual State of Palestine.
At the same time, even if the Jordanian government wanted to fully embrace the Palestinians, such as freeing up resources for education and health care, doing so would be a difficult sell to the rest of the population, which consider themselves the real Jordanians.
The issue, however, is about money in the West Bank and, in particular, the Gaza Strip. UNRWA spent almost $300 million between the two Palestinian Territories last year, two-thirds of that in Gaza where Hamas holds sway. More than 260,000 children are enrolled in UNRWA schools in those two areas, while 6.3 million patients were made treated at agency health clinics.
Shortly after Hamas won legislative elections in January 2006, Canada became the first country to cut off aid to the new government. The European Union and US followed suit, instead distributing it directly to the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party rivals Hamas. That rivalry came to a head in mid-2007 with Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip and leaving the West Bank to Fatah.
With Hamas listed as a terrorist organization by a number of donor countries, including Canada, UNRWA is one of the main conduits for providing assistance in Gaza. However, Hamas spends a great deal of time and money providing social services as well.
`Hamas devotes much of its estimated $70-million annual budget to an extensive social services network,` a Council on Foreign Relations briefing from August 2009 reads. It goes on to cite an Israeli scholar`s estimate that as much as 90 per cent of its budget goes to social, welfare, cultural and educational activities.
`Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues,` the report reads. `The Palestinian Authority often fails to provide such services, and Hamas`s efforts in this area—as well as a reputation for honesty, in contrast to the many Fatah officials accused of corruption—help to explain the broad popularity it summoned to defeat Fatah in the PA`s recent elections.`
There have long been allegations, particularly from groups like B`Nai Brith, that UNRWA has been infiltrated by extremists, that money given to the UN agency is being diverted to terrorist groups, and that UNRWA facilities are being used as recruitment centres.
Internal CIDA documents obtained by Embassy, however, showed that after Canada became the first country to cut ties with the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authorities in 2006, `CIDA investigated UNRWA`s internal financial and human resources policies and controls. CIDA`s legal and program staff concluded that the risks of UNRWA funding terrorist groups are minimal.` An updated analysis in 2009 concluded the UN agency represented a `low risk` from a financial management perspective.
The documents also cited UNRWA`s `policy of zero tolerance concerning the involvement of its staff in terrorist organi[z]ations` and that `UNRWA, as any agency, cannot police the beliefs as well as the national and political sympathies of its staff, but its [sic] does strictly police their behaviour.`
In fact, there have been numerous reports that Hamas and UNRWA have actually had numerous disputes. Most recently, in September, there were numerous reports of ongoing arguments over UNRWA`s decision to teach human rights.
The human rights subject `violates and harms Islamic faith by talking thoroughly about personal freedom and encourages people even to select their religion as if they are selecting from a food menu,` Xinhua quoted Hossam Ahmed, the head of Hamas`s refugee department, as saying this past September.
`What would you do?`
On the morning of March 12, 2009, a teleconference was scheduled between CIDA Minister Bev Oda and UNRWA Commissioner General Karen AbuZayd. In advance, a briefing book was prepared that included `key messages` for Ms. Oda to relay to Ms. AbuZayd and questions to ask.
`What measures do you feel would best demonstrate UNRWA`s neutrality in carrying out its mandate?` reads one question. `What do you see as the inherent challenges in guarding that neutrality?`
Neutrality. Should a video like what I saw be at an UNRWA institution? Should UNRWA be discouraging its charges from thinking of themselves as refugees, or even Palestinian? Can it even do so? And if it tries, will that play into the hands of Hamas and other extremists?
There are no clear answers. When asked about the video and other incidents that have been reported, the senior UNRWA official says: `Where we find cases of the neutrality clause being crossed, we deal with it.` He notes as an example that student unions have been banned from agency schools in the West Bank because of problems that arose from them.
But during the discussion at Nuzha Prep, when I ask about negotiating with Israel, the girls are unequivocal: talking failed.
`Dialogue is of no use anymore,` says one girl. `We have tried, we have tried. Talking with the Israelis is useless.`
`What has been taken by force should be returned by force,` adds another through the translator, who, seeing my reaction, unconvincingly adds that knowledge is power.
In an interview with the Winnipeg Jewish Review in November, then-minister of state for the Americas Peter Kent, who was also the Harper government`s unofficial spokesman on Israel, was asked about UNRWA. He responded that agency officials `shouldn`t take sides [in the conflict] first of all...and that they shouldn`t take sides with groups that encourage terror.`
In the same article, Liberal Immigration critic Justin Trudeau said that `it`s easiest to divide when people have empty belies, when the sense of hope for something good isn`t necessarily tangible.
`So the more there is economic suffering...marginalization, and lack of capacity to dream big and achieve those dreams, then people fall into the pit of aggression and enmity articulated through a form of an nihilism like suicide bombers.`
The agency has offered to open its books to Canada to prove that foreign funding isn`t going to extremists or other radicalization efforts, to let the country have unprecedented control over what core programs and services to fund if it means money will come in. While unhappy with the prospects of other donors making similar demands, it says it needs continued Canadian support. It hasn`t received a response.
Rather, `UNRWA has been informed that CIDA will continue to support UNRWA`s emergency appeals in the West Bank and Gaza in line with CIDA`s priority of strengthening food security,` CIDA spokesman Scott Cantin said in an email when asked to explain Canada`s relationship with the UN agency.
Meanwhile, for the girls in Nuzha Prep`s Parliament on human rights and women`s issues, there is no question of giving up on Palestine.
`In the West, they present an image of us that we are not educated, that we have given up our desire to return,` says one girl. `We don`t give up on our right. We know we have this right.`
Sixteen-year-old Wisam Mousa turns to me. `Imagine if you were living outside Canada and you weren`t allowed to return,` she says. `What would you do?`
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