10 March 2020
James Cleverly responds to debate on radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate and speaking so passionately. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It is quite clear that this issue generates significant interest and passion in all corners of the House.

I wish to make a couple of broad points as a backdrop to my further comments. I will seek to address as many of the questions that have been brought up as possible. The Government are clear that quality education is vital to individuals, their families, their communities and wider society. Education has the power not only to transform lives, but to bring hope and to build the foundations for a sustainable, long-term peace, and that is particularly true in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Government are committed to a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.

We believe that girls’ education is the key that unlocks so many of the challenges around the world; it can break the cycle of poverty, improve health and bring lifelong opportunities to entire countries. That is why we are prioritising the delivery of 12 years of quality education. It is a global priority, which is vital for all girls around the world, including those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—in Gaza and the west bank. The education of girls is going to be part of the road to a sustainable two-state solution. It is also worth bearing in mind that UNRWA funding, to which the UK contributes, means that half of the people educated in Gaza and the west bank are girls. Without the support of UNRWA, that might not necessarily be the case.

An enduring principle that I think we can all agree on is that antisemitism is unacceptable in all its forms; it is offensive, hateful and has no place anywhere in society, least of all in classrooms. We are therefore deeply concerned by reports of radicalisation in the Palestinian education system, and specifically concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s textbooks and the incitement of hatred and violence towards Israelis. It is clear from this debate that those concerns are shared by Members from all parties in the House.

I will offer the Government’s perspective on this issue and set out the steps that we are taking to address it, and in doing so I hope to cover the questions asked by right hon. and hon. Members. It is important to remember that the UK does not fund textbooks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The allegations relating to incitement in the Palestinian education system came to international attention following the publication in 2018 of the report by an Israeli non-governmental organisation, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education—IMPACT-se. They are serious allegations and we take them seriously but, as has already been discussed, they are contested by the Palestinian Authority.

We need to encourage change and support improvement in the Palestinian Authority, and an independent review will help to underpin that, which is why the UK has repeatedly raised concerns about the textbooks with the Palestinian Authority. Most recently, my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for International Development reiterated our concerns in a call to the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister just last month—it was one of the first calls she made after being appointed by the Prime Minister.

I am pleased to confirm that the Palestinian Education Minister is leading a review into the content of school textbooks, which will be completed in time for the start of the next academic year in September. He has committed that his team are taking into consideration the feedback from a range of sources, both domestic and international, and we seek to support that work.

In addition to our engagement with the Palestinian Authority, the UK has led international efforts to get to the bottom of the situation with regard to the content in the Palestinian Authority textbooks. We funded the development work for the methodology of an independent review, which is sponsored by the European Union. That review by the specialist and respected Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research is under way. As has been discussed, we expect the interim report in the spring, with the full report later on.

Mr Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con)

It is good news that the Palestinian Minister is undertaking a review. Have we also got an assurance that any textbooks that are found to be wrong, in every sense of the word, will be withdrawn and not used in the next academic year? That is the point.

James Cleverly

The short answer is that we do not have an absolute guarantee, but as in so much of the work that we do with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, human interaction, persuasion and good old-fashioned diplomacy can bring about change, and that is what we seek to do in our relationship, hence my right hon. friend the Secretary of State engaging so quickly with the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister.

As I have said, we expect the interim report in the spring and the full report later this year. It is ultimately for the European Union to decide whether it puts the report in the public domain; it is, after all, its report. However, it has been said on both sides of the House that transparency is our friend in this instance, and we will continue to encourage the EU to put that report in the public domain. I think it is worth waiting for that report to underpin the basis for our response to these concerns and our interaction with the Palestinian Authority. We have regular interaction with our European partners on the review and we encourage transparency.

The Government are firm believers in the positive power of education. We are proud of the support that we are providing for education around the world, including in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is a vital part of our wider effort to improve lives. In 2018-19, UK aid enabled 26,000 young Palestinians to be educated, and half of them were girls. We do not want to lose that, which is why I treat with caution calls to withdraw funding from UNRWA, because some young people—particularly girls—might lose the opportunity to have an education at all if that were the case. We are very uncomfortable with that option and that risk.

Our money to support education on the west bank goes into a specially dedicated bank account and is paid only to the individuals who are vetted through the Palestinian-European socio-economic management assistance mechanism. Each payment is individually audited to ensure that the money is received by the intended recipient. It is a rigorous process, which means that the UK can be confident that none of our aid is diverted. No UK aid is used for payments to prisoners or their families. Helping to meet essential education needs does not contradict our clear and long-standing message to the Palestinian Authority about prisoner payments.

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

I apologise for not being present for the start of the debate; I had a Select Committee meeting that clashed. I first raised this issue with a parliamentary question in the European Parliament 19 years ago. Why has the problem not been fixed?

James Cleverly

I detect in the tone of my right hon. Friend’s question her frustration at the delay in resolving some of these problems. She is far from alone in feeling frustration that the peace process in the middle east has not progressed as quickly as we would like, but we are actively engaging on this issue. I reiterate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has engaged quickly and directly with the Palestinian Authority, and we genuinely hope that a balanced and independently produced report will be the key that unlocks what has been an intractable problem until this point. We will use that, and our position as a respected, honest broker between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, to try to push for improvement and reform.

Jim Shannon

I think the question that we all have in mind is this: is there not a suitable methodology within the system? It is good to provide money for Palestinian children’s education, and I understand the logic behind that. What I do not understand is how we check that. How does the Minister or UNWRA ensure that textbooks do not contain material that could lead to terrorism and change children’s opinions? That is the thrust of it.

James Cleverly

I recognise the hon. Member’s point. We absolutely recognise that this is an imperfect situation, but we are working with the Palestinian Authority, as we will continue to do, to reinforce and support moves to improve textbooks. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) pointed out that Jordan has significantly improved the content of its textbooks. There is a pattern, and that is something on which we will engage with the Palestinian Authority.

Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)

I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate; I too was at a Select Committee hearing. Given that this has been an issue for 19 years, what faith does the Minister genuinely have that the Palestinian Authority will investigate the matter properly?

Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)

Minister, you have a minute and a half left.

James Cleverly

Thank you, Sir Charles.

The simple truth is that we have to work with the Palestinian Authority. We have to encourage and support them to do the right thing, but ultimately a sustainable two-state solution will have to be negotiated between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority. Although there may be concerns about the ability or willingness of the Palestinian Authority to engage in this, they are the organisation through which we have to work in order to have a credible and sustainable two-state solution, so we will be patient. We will be persistent, we will be principled and we will be balanced, but we will keep pushing this agenda.