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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview: IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff on Radicalization in Palestinian Authority Textbooks


For decades, Palestinian primary- and secondary-school textbooks have imparted anti-Semitic tropes and glorified violence against Jews and Israelis. According to a new study published in April 2017 by the Jerusalem-based IMPACT-se (Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education), this trend is worsening. Joining Near East Report to discuss increased radicalization in Palestinian Authority (PA) textbooks is IMPACT-se’s Chief Executive Officer, Marcus Sheff.


Q: What is IMPACT-se’s methodology when reviewing Palestinian textbooks? What factors determine whether a particular curriculum is radical or not?


A: IMPACT-se utilizes the content analysis research method in reviewing all curricula we review, be they Israeli, Palestinian, Turkish or Iranian materials. We do not cherry-pick data; we check every line of every book.


The content of textbooks is examined according to the following criteria, derived from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) standards for peace and tolerance in school education:

  • RESPECT: The curriculum should promote tolerance, understanding and respect toward the “Other,” his or her culture, achievements, values and way of life.

  • INDIVIDUAL OTHER: The curriculum should foster personal attachment toward the "Other" as an individual, his or her desire to be familiar, loved and appreciated.

  • NO HATE: The curriculum should be free of wording, imagery and ideologies likely to create prejudices, misconceptions, stereotypes, misunderstandings, mistrust, racial hatred, religious bigotry and national hatred, as well as any other form of hatred or contempt for other groups or peoples.

  • PEACEMAKING: The curriculum should develop capabilities for non-violent conflict resolution and promote peace.

  • UNBIASED INFORMATION: Educational materials (textbooks, workbooks, teachers’ guides, maps, illustrations, aids) should be up-to-date, accurate, complete, balanced and unprejudiced, and use equal standards to promote mutual knowledge and understanding between different peoples.


Q: Has the PA’s school curriculum become more radicalized in terms of problematic images, concepts or language? Have you found any sections that encourage coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians?


A: An analysis of the new 2016 PA school textbooks published for grades 1–4 points to an increased radicalization of the Palestinian national identity over the last year.


The curriculum is now educating Palestinian elementary-age children—the very youngest at school—to engage in active conflict. Children are being groomed to become martyrs—to sacrifice their lives when the opportunity arises. These children are now being educated with the disposition to fight Israelis, both in the current reality as well as from a future Palestinian state.


These new textbooks for the first four grades dovetail with the PA’s upper grades textbooks, which show a commitment to the PLO's path that combines diplomacy and violence with the overarching goal of a full "liberation" of Palestine.


This significant—even alarming—deterioration of the curriculum’s message when compared with our review of previous texts for these age groups does not bode well for future peace prospects.


Q: Are there any particular school subjects where this radicalization is most pronounced? Or, is it present in all subjects and at all grade levels?


A: Radicalization is prevalent in all subjects—even in math. For instance, in Mathematics, Grade 4, Vol. 1 (2016), children are taught: “The number of martyrs of the First Intifada during 1987–93 totaled 2026 martyrs, and the number of martyrs of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Intifada in the year 2000 totaled 5,050 martyrs while the number of the wounded reached 49,760. How many martyrs died in the two Intifadas?” (p.35).


But clearly, topics that deal with national identity, such as the National Education and Socialization course, have a greater proclivity to radicalization.


Q: How is Palestinian identity depicted in textbooks? How does this depiction inform your report’s overall analysis?


A: The stress is on an Arab-Palestinian nationalism that covers the territory of the British Mandate in Palestine in1922–1948. Textbooks refer to a Palestinian state established on the entirety of [historical] “Palestine,” (including Israel proper).


Lower grade texts provide the contours of Palestinian identity, assuming that children between six and 10 years of age are still too young to understand the complex realities that surround them. This does not mean that children this age cannot grasp the presence of cultural and political “Others” toward whom compassion and empathy can be expressed. Indeed, the curriculum encourages accepting the Christian minority, women, the elderly and the disabled.


But these young children are not taught to have a similar understanding of Israelis in all their multicultural forms who share land, heritage, history and a future with Palestinian Muslims. Instead, one finds a combination of complete denial and hatred of Israel as an existing neighbor.


Students in the upper grades are provided a more complex historical and strategic perspective of the Palestinian worldview as they prepare for their matriculation exams. These textbooks present a much harsher historical and political perspective of Israel as a bitter rival and enemy in war and diplomacy.


Q: How do these PA textbooks approach the peace process? Do the textbooks paint a black and white picture, or is there any level of nuance?


A: The textbooks explain to Palestinian children that Palestinian statehood is "one of the most pressing issues on the international agenda," and is not a bilateral issue. Therefore, there is really not an expression of the peace process in the curriculum. 


Indeed, in explaining the benefits of the failed PA attempt in 2011 to attain Member State status at the United Nations, the Palestinian schoolbook points, first and foremost, to the "transfer of the Palestinian question from a question controlled by Israel, via bilateral negotiations, into an international question." By moving unilaterally, the Palestinians will in this view be able to grant Palestinian citizenship to Palestinians all over the world, which will automatically grant them the right of return to their homeland as well as various means to pressure Israel internationally.


Students are informed of the Oslo process and that final status negotiations are part of the accords but—blaming Israel—stresses the hopelessness of negotiations.


Thus, the paradigm returns to a permanent engagement in a struggle that involves armed conflict, diplomatic pressure and some negotiations (mostly rejections of initiatives deemed too harmful to their cause).


The curriculum for grades 11–12 describes the current phase in Islamic terms, as a struggle until the day of resurrection:


 “The people of the Levant in general and Palestine in particular are in a state of ribat [guerrilla actions] until the Day of Resurrection…If you examine the history of Palestine, you shall find that momentous battles took place on Palestine’s soil. Its inhabitants are in constant struggle against their enemies” (Islamic Education, Grade 12, 2014, pp. 86–87).


The curriculum also envisions a large Palestine with Jerusalem, not just East Jerusalem, at its center. There is no room for Jews or Israelis in the future capital city of Palestine:


“Jerusalem is a Palestinian city and capital of the State of Palestine. The Palestinian flag will be hoisted on the city's walls after the liberation from Israeli occupation, God willing” (National Education and Socialization, Grade 4, Vol. 1, 2016–17, p. 26).



The above is a political map of Palestine (Mathematics, Grade 1, Vol. 1, 2016–17, p. 143) that includes the entire territory of Israel, with neighboring Arab countries; but Israel is not depicted. The assignment for the student is to look at the map and find the city of Ramallah, then locate four other cities, to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west of Ramallah. The map includes many Israeli cities with Arab names, including, interestingly, Tel Aviv which carries the translation: Tal al-Rabi (Mound of Spring).


In effect, the curriculum for all grades reflects a comprehensive Palestinian strategy likely based on the Sixth Fatah Conference of 2009, which established a policy of unilateral diplomatic effort in the international arena to accompany “popular resistance.”


The curriculum also promotes the much older paradigm of a ceaseless effort to destroy Israel in stages. This generation of Palestinian children is methodically being educated in the spirit of the Ten-Point Program adopted by the Palestine National Council (PNC) in 1974. The program called for the establishment of a national authority “over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated” with the aim of “completing the liberation of all Palestinian territory,” and included an uncompromising rejection of Israel through a combination of violence and world community pressure to accommodate Palestinian demands.


So, what used to be the strategy of one extremist guerilla movement has now become the standard for all Palestinian school students.


Palestinian students vow to “saturate the generous land” with their blood. Each student recites, “I vow I shall sacrifice my blood…will remove/eliminate the usurper from my country, and will annihilate the remnants of the foreigners.” There is apparently no restriction on violence until the last Israeli is out of Palestine.


The vision presented by the curriculum is that of a struggle “until the day of resurrection” to secure one Arab Palestine that includes all the territory of Israel, with Israel's capital as the Palestinian capital, and being part of the “Arab Homeland,” Arab Nation and Muslim Nation. A massive “return” of Arab Palestinians into what is now Israel is envisaged.


We assess then that a systematically promoted hatred of all things Jewish/Israeli likely makes students malleable to more direct calls for action as required by the PA (exemplified during the most recent wave of stabbing attacks). While there are limits to overt incitement in the official Palestinian curriculum for reasons of deniability, the curriculum seems designed to create an Us (Palestinian)-versus-Them (all things Israel) mentality that legitimizes all forms of fighting and struggle.


Q: How does the depiction of “the Other” (i.e., Israelis) differ from the depiction of Palestinians in Israeli textbooks?


A: Israeli curriculum research in the past two decades has acknowledged that attitudes towards the Arab and Palestinian “Other” have significantly improved in Israeli textbooks published in the 1990s and onwards.


These studies indicate that representations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are currently depicted in a more balanced and objective manner in these textbooks than it was in the past, with books abandoning stereotypes and including more of the Palestinian point of view than their predecessors.

While the same studies also contend that Israeli textbooks are inclined to present such trends as self-victimization (or “siege mentality”), ethnocentrism and bias, most large-scale Israeli curriculum studies show that these trends have dramatically decreased since the 1990s.   


Israeli textbooks see peace as the ultimate goal, and depict it as highly desirable and achievable, while war is described as a negative occurrence, though a necessary one at times.


The textbooks acknowledge Palestinian presence in Israel before 1948, the development of a national Palestinian identity and different aspects of the Palestinian narrative, rationale and experiences (including the Nakba and Palestinian suffering).


Maps also recognize Palestinian physical presence in the area, including major Palestinian cities and other forms of Palestinian geographical presence such as marking Palestinian Authority territories, marking the “Green Line” and at times detailing Areas A, B and C delineated in the Oslo Accords.


Israeli textbooks do not include messages of incitement or stereotypes against Palestinians. In some cases, these textbooks include themes such as ethnocentrism and self-perception of Israel and the Jews as the main victims of war and violence, who only react to Arab or Palestinian hostility. However, it could be argued that such trends of self-justification are natural and commonplace for government-approved textbooks, especially for a society in a protracted conflict.


Israeli textbooks explain the complexities and political disagreements within Israeli society but maintain a clear message of tolerance and coexistence in regard to Arab and Muslim minorities, and towards Palestinian-Israeli citizens in particular. Textbooks include respectful representation of Arab and Muslim culture and heritage, including direct and personal narratives of Arab and Muslim minorities in Israel.


Q: What are your recommendations for reversing the troubling trend in Palestinian textbooks?


A: One conclusion is the urgency of this moment. Those observers who believe that continuing the status quo while focusing on economic issues is the least harmful path, may find it appropriate to reconsider. The PA educational system has created a Palestinian nationalism that is incompatible with Israel's existence, and this trend must be immediately reversed.


The Palestinian curriculum should eliminate its commitment to eternal war and the veneration of martyrdom. Schools have to stop teaching generation after generation of Palestinian youth that their homeland is comprised of the area that includes Israel, in addition to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. "Resistance," translated into an eternal jihad war through ribat, should not be part of the curriculum.


Instead, Israel must be plainly described as a legitimate nation-state. Students are now left with a state of cognitive dissonance and confusion. The PA curriculum should cease describing Israel as the source of all evil. It should cease educating for settling millions of Palestinians in Israel and give up the concept of "resistance" (conquest of your neighbor in stages) and "martyrdom" (suicide killings) as recurring motifs.


The PA should also stop endangering Palestinian children. They should not be used as cannon fodder for an old generation of guerrilla fighters and new generation of Islamists. The curriculum should give up on the centrality of struggle, heroism, suicide and death. It should cease stereotyping Israelis as farcical villains and begin talking about them as neighbors and fellow humans who have a long history and cultural roots in the region.


The once-entertained hope that independent Palestinian curricula would become a peace-oriented enterprise seems to have been dashed. Evaluating the curriculum from the point of view of UNESCO's standards for peace and tolerance in school education, it is clear that the curriculum does not meet these standards.


Yet, if any hope for peace is to be found, it must start with curricula that have peace at their core. It is late but hopefully not too late. A change in Palestinian education to conform to international standards—from a guerilla mentality to peace and mutual recognition—could serve as a leverage point in helping to solve the conflict. Palestinian education—the curriculum, school activities and social media—should therefore abide by UNESCO standards while:

  • Committing to the spirit and language of the peace process;

  • Advocating mutual understanding and peace, rather than "martyrdom" and eternal violent struggle; and

  • Treating Israel as a legitimate nation and the Jews as fellow Middle Easterners, largely sharing the same religious and cultural heritage.


It should also avoid:

  • Presenting a biased perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict;

  • Rejecting the rights of Jews and Israel's existence; and

  • Demonizing both Jews and Israel.


Marcus Sheff is the CEO of IMPACT-se. He previously worked as a political reporter before establishing his own strategic communications firm. He went on to serve as an executive at leading global media companies and as Director of The Israel Project's Israel office. He has briefed global leaders, testified at parliaments and appears regularly on international media.


Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report