Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Israel’s War on Gaza’s Education and Intellectuals

Israel's war on Gaza's education aims to hinder Gaza's scholarly future, making it difficult for generations to complete their education, improve their livelihood and pursue their ambitions. Palestinian researchers and scholars state that this targeted assault on scholars, intellectuals, and educational centers reveals a genocidal strategy towards Gaza's social and economic development.

Israel's War on Gaza
A school run by UNRWA, where people sought refuge from Israeli bombardments, stands ravaged in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City. AFP

Dana Hourany

In its genocidal campaign to erase all aspects of life in Gaza, Israel has not spared universities and schools, where forcibly displaced people are taking shelter.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Education, more than 280 government schools and 65 UNRWA-run schools have been destroyed or damaged by the Israeli army.

Since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza on October 7, approximately 133 schools have provided shelter to over 1.9 million displaced Palestinians. However, these sanctuaries have not been spared from the relentless Israeli attacks, rendering them out of service due to severe damages or complete destruction, in addition to claiming thousands of lives.

Yet, the devastation extends beyond just schools. All universities in Gaza have also been destroyed or severely damaged. Reports from the Palestinian news agency Wafa state that 12 higher education institutions in Gaza have been rendered inoperative, bringing any and all academic pursuits to a halt.

The Israelis have also targeted Gaza’s scholars, killing 94 university professors, according to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor who described the targeting of schools as a deliberate “destruction of Palestinian cultural and historical properties.”

Palestinian researchers and scholars state that this targeted assault on scholars, intellectuals, and educational centers reveals a genocidal strategy towards Gaza’s social and economic development. It aims to hinder Gaza’s scholarly future, making it difficult for current and future generations to complete their education, thus impeding their prospects for livelihood improvement and the pursuit of their ambitions.

Gaza’s Education Scene

In tandem with prioritizing family bonds, education emerges as a priority for Palestinians. As of 2022, Gaza boasted a literacy rate of 97%, with school enrollment at 95% and primary school completion reaching 99%.

Gaza’s residents have been forced to endure years of Israeli blockade and political turmoil, adding to their daily survival challenges. These are compounded by escalating poverty, rampant unemployment, a deteriorating economy, and dire shortages of energy resources and potable water.

Within this harsh reality, children cling to education to bolster their development and encourage their self-esteem while fostering hope for the future. However, classrooms are often packed with students, leaving little room for individual expression. Despite these constraints, Gaza’s teachers strive to maximize the learning experience amid challenging circumstances.

The education system in Gaza was already grappling with significant underfunding and inadequate infrastructure. Yet, Gaza’s residents remained persistent in their pursuit of education.

According to Gazan writer Yousef al-Jamal, Israel is aware that education plays a pivotal role in Palestinian life, hence why it is targeting it.

“In 1948, during the Nakba, Palestinians lost everything; their land and their houses, so many turned to education,” al-Jamal told Fanack.

As Palestinians were forced out of their homeland, teachers stepped in to rebuild a fragmented Palestinian society. One of Gaza’s oldest higher education institutions, the Islamic University, founded in 1978, held its first lectures in tents.

Al-Jamal recalls his father’s sacrifice of having to sell property to provide his children a university education.

“To counter the Israeli occupation, Palestinians found solace in education as a means to resist, provide for better living circumstances, and move out of refugee camps,” he said.

Education as a Weapon

The Israeli occupation’s attacks on Palestinian schools had been present long before the events of October 7. For example, in the summer of 2014 alone, Israel damaged 138 Gaza schools, killing nearly 330 children and injuring over 2,000.

Today, the Palestinian Ministry of Education reports that as of January 30, more than 4,660 students and 239 educators have been killed and over 8,109 students and 756 teachers have been injured by the Israeli army. The 2023 – 2024 school year has been suspended.

According to al-Jamal, education is a component of resistance and occurs as a result of it. Educated individuals understand their past and present, as well as how settler colonialism has shaped their lives.

Israel aims to render the people of Gaza illiterate, unable to convey their side of the story to the world—a mission that Gazan scholars, researchers, journalists, writers, and artists have relentlessly defied, he added.

According to Euro-Med Monitor, the Israeli army has launched airstrikes on the houses of academic, scientific, and intellectual luminaries in the Gaza Strip without warning. As a result, these people, along with their families and other displaced people, were brutally killed.

Dr. Wesam Amer, dean of Gaza University’s Faculty of Communication and Languages, who fled the strip in November, believes that scholars can broaden Palestinians’ perspectives on important issues like the Israeli occupation and Palestine’s relationship to the region and the world.

“When education is destroyed, a whole generation is destroyed,” Amer told Fanack. “The Israeli destruction will affect the future prospects of Gaza and impede its development.”

Recognizing that their intellectuals are prime targets for Israel, Gazans have long strived to cultivate additional storytellers. In 2015, young journalists and students came together to establish We Are Not Numbers, a collective that aims to shed light on the personal narratives of Palestinians.

The co-founder of this initiative was Professor Refaat Alareer, a beloved Palestinian figure and a writer whose voice reached millions on social media platforms. Israel killed him on December 7 in Shejaiya, north of Gaza.

Remembering Prof. Refaat Al Areer

Israel has a history of targeting writers, most notably Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated by the Israeli Mossad on July 8, 1972 by planting a bomb in his car in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

“Intellectuals, historians and academics usually write about Palestinian issues and memories which Israel seeks to omit,” Amer said.

A recent example is Prof. Refaat Alareer. The 44 year old edited the book Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza and Gaza Unsilenced, a collection of essays, reportages and poetry from Gaza.

Al-Jamal, who was one of his students, says Alareer trained hundreds of students in creative writing and storytelling in the English language.

“Refaat would emphasize the importance of telling our story to the world and that each one of us [students] has a story worth telling,” he said.

Alareer was an example of how educated individuals are able to narrate the Palestinian story through the appropriate historical, economic and social context which can impact broader audiences around the world, al-Jamal notes.

“This is also a war on our story and narrative,” the writer said. “We can see the large support for the Palestinian cause and how people are siding with our narrative. That’s why Israel wants those behind these stories gone.”

Several of Alareer’s students have obtained higher education abroad and landed jobs because of his support and academic training.

“If Israel believes that by killing him, it has ended his legacy, it is mistaken. He is now recognized by millions around the world, and even though Israel intended him to be an ordinary casualty, he became a legend and a tale,” al-Jamal said, referencing Alareer’s poem “If I Must Die,” wherein Alareer writes, “If I must die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale.”

De-funding Gaza’s Main Lifeline

In its latest attempt to cut all lifelines to Palestinians, Israel accused approximately a dozen of UNRWA’s over 13,000 Gaza employees of involvement in Hamas’ attack on southern Israel on October 7.

This led to the United States introducing a security bill aimed at reducing funding to the United Nations agency.

Despite Israel’s failure to substantiate its claims, the US and several other nations promptly suspended funding to the agency. UNRWA depends on government contributions to sustain its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Operating 183 schools throughout the Gaza Strip, UNRWA plays an essential role in providing basic necessities like food, water, and hygiene supplies to nearly the entire population in Gaza.

“For the people of Gaza, UNRWA is a lifeline, especially now,” Amer emphasized. “Cutting funding to UNRWA at such a critical moment poses significant risks for regional stability, given the agency’s vital services for Palestinian refugees across multiple countries.”

In an Israeli Knesset session on January 4, Noga Arbell, a former official of the Israeli foreign ministry, asserted that, ‘It will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA, and this destruction must begin immediately.’

According to al-Jamal, UNRWA serves as a symbol of the ongoing plight of Palestinian refugees and the unresolved Palestinian cause. The agency’s continued existence demonstrates the prevalence of the Palestinian cause, and the Palestinian right of return, which Israeli officials have explicitly opposed and cited as a reason for UNRWA’s dismantling.

The withdrawal of funding from UNRWA exacerbates the numerous crises currently afflicting Palestinians in Gaza. From an educational standpoint, Amer says that the reconstruction of educational facilities will not only be a lengthy process but also necessitates addressing the psychological impact on students and teachers. He asserts that all organizations capable of helping ease the suffering of Gazans must step forward urgently, in light of the dire situation that is escalating by the minute.

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