The Hidden War on Higher Education: Unmasking the ‘Educide’ in Gaza

Ibrahim S.I Rabaia, Birzeit University[1] and Lourdes Habash, Birzeit University[2]

 

Introduction

Since October 7, 2023, there has been a dramatic escalation in Israeli official and public rhetoric targeting Palestinian educational institutions, describing them by centers for educating and producing terrorism.  Palestinian higher education institutions (HEIs) in Gaza have been directly targeted by Israel during the war, resulting in the prolonged destruction of 11 out of Gaza’s 19 Higher Education Institutions (HEI).[3] The destruction included 4 out of 6 major universities in Gaza and killed, as of February 13, more than 450 academic and administrative university staff.[4]That number includes  three university presidents, seven deans, and 64 professors.[5] On October 11, the Islamic University was completely destroyed by Israeli aircraft. The headquarters of Al-Azhar University has been shelled in Gaza city, along with its branch in AL-Megraqa south of Gaza City on October 11 and 21.  On December 7, Al-Israa University was destroyed and used as operation and detention center. On December 16, two main buildings of Al-Aqsa University were entirely destroyed, alongside the partial destruction of the others. Likewise, several buildings of Al-Quds Open university were partially destroyed, including the Gaza branch and the North Branch.[6]

The attacks on Gazan Higher Education have been justified in terms of Israel’s discourse of fighting terrorism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized education in a speech expressing the desire to establish a new authority in Gaza which would not “teach terror”. This speech[7] aligns with the long-standing colonial policy that has governed the Palestinian higher education sector since the occupation of the West Bank (WB) and Gaza in 1967.[8] Israeli authorities have constructed fragility in the Palestinian higher education sector and created “Bare Education” [9] in all components of that sector. That has included physical attacks well before 2023. Since 2008, the higher education institution (HEI) in Gaza Strip has been targeted, with the bombing and destruction of the central laboratories of the Islamic University justified by the claim that laboratories are “used to manufacture and develop rockets and that their halls are used for meetings of Hamas leadership in Gaza.”[10]

The incitement against the University escalated after being granted a seat in UNESCO in 2012, when the Israeli Ministry of foreign affairs accused the Department of Chemical Engineering of the University of supporting the Qassam Brigades; the university clarified that it did not have any section or specialization in that particular area.  In 2014, the University was bombed by F-16 aircraft, under the pretext that it was “collecting donations to Hamas and forming a military operational center for the Qassam on the rehabilitation, training, development and production levels.”[11]  In 2014 alone, approximately 12 higher educational institutions in Gaza were targeted by the occupation. In 2018, Al-Azhar University was attacked, causing the destruction of several of its colleges.

The situation has deteriorated drastically in the ongoing war. Over the course of five months, approximately 78,000 Gazan university students have been deprived of continuing their education. The targeting of higher education has been deliberate and systematic; 94 professors were targeted and killed by Israeli occupation, while well-known universities such as Al-Azhar and Al-Islamiah were the focus of devastation. These leading higher education institutions have been utterly dismantled, leaving no trace behind. The remaining universities in Gaza have also suffered heavy damage, exacerbating the disastrous impact on higher education.

One can analyze the systematic targeting of Gaza through various lenses, one of which is the concept of Spacio-Cide, as described by Sari Hanafi.[12] Spatial cleansing works to facilitate the “voluntary” transfer of the Palestinian people by targeting Palestinian space. This paper attempts to track the eradication of higher education in the Gaza Strip, under the Israeli occupation. While spatial cleansing partially defines the comprehensive cleansing of the education sector in Gaza, the paper contends that the occupation’s practices go beyond this, encompassing the creation of sustained vulnerability, the elimination of opportunities for recovery, and the removal of educational personnel through both targeted killings and “voluntary” displacement. As a result, the structure of higher education in the Gaza Strip is facing educide, following decades of implementing a de-development and cleansing strategy against the education sector.

Background: De-developing HE in Gaza

The higher education sector in Gaza witnessed significant growth after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In 1994, there were seven higher education institutions in Gaza, comprising four institutes and three universities. By 2017, this number had expanded to 28 institutions, including 8 universities and 20 colleges. According to statistics from the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), by 2017, approximately 80% of the 87,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions in Gaza were studying at universities, while the remaining 20% were enrolled in colleges. The annual statistical book published by the MOHE in 2022[13] revealed that out of the 53 registered and recognized higher education institutions in Palestine,18 were located in Gaza.[14] This highlights the significant presence and contribution of Gaza’s higher education sector within the broader Palestinian higher education landscape.

Since 2008, Israeli military operations in Gaza have specifically targeted those higher education institutions, causing substantial physical destruction. During the 2008-2009 war, the Israeli Air Force destroyed six university buildings.[15] In the 2014 Israeli war against Gaza, the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR) reported significant losses in the higher education sector, estimated at around $10 million. According to the PECDAR report, three universities endured the greatest form of this destruction. Al-Azhar University suffered the complete destruction of three buildings, resulting in losses estimated at $3 million. The Islamic University experienced damage to two buildings, amounting to approximately $4 million. Additionally, the University College of Applied Sciences faced the destruction of classrooms, scientific laboratories, the central library, the computer center, and electricity generators, with estimated damages valued at $2.5 million.[16] Some estimations claimed that the total losses in 2014 were $33 million.[17] These targeted attacks on higher education have had desolating impact on educational infrastructure, hindering academic progress, and impeding the development of future generations in Gaza.

The previous Israeli operations and the blockade on Gaza had left the higher education sector in a vulnerable state for the past 17 years. The combination of infrastructure and equipment obsolescence, limited electricity supply, restrictions on financial transactions, and scarce resources has hindered the development of this sector and severely limited reconstruction efforts following each Israeli operation.[18] The Israeli government has implemented a comprehensive and multi-dimensional hermitic blockade, which has had detrimental effects on various aspects of life in Gaza, including education. As a result, the higher education sector has experienced de-development, as it faces numerous challenges and contradictions. While local attempts were made to build and improve educational infrastructure, Israeli actions have caused physical and non-tangible destruction, undermining these efforts.[19]

The 17-year blockade and resulting de-development have imposed various structural limitations on the higher education sector in Gaza in term of:

De-mobility: HEI in Gaza were forced to design their plans and programs based solely on local capacities, with limited and uncertain interaction with regional and international partners, including universities and specialized institutions. This isolation has hindered Gaza’s participation in exchange programs, as students and academic staff are unable to travel outside of Gaza, while foreign staff face restrictions in visiting Gaza universities. Consequently, the capacities and quality of higher education institutions in Gaza have been undermined.

Furthermore, the connection between higher education institutions in Gaza and their counterparts in the West Bank has been severed due to de-mobility. It is worth noting that the situation of higher education institutions in the West Bank is also challenging, characterized by restrictions imposed by Israel on the employment of foreign academics in universities, limiting their work to five years and imposing a ceiling of 100 professor and 150 students.[20]

Since 2000, Israeli authorities have imposed strict restrictions on Gazan student who wish to pursue their education abroad. Most of their travel requests have been rejected, severely limiting their opportunities. In 2015, Israel introduced measures to “ease” travel restrictions by granting 50 permissions to Gazan students who wanted to study in the West Bank. However, later on, the Israeli authorities froze this action. These measures caused a significant decrease in the number of Gazan students studying in the West Bank over the years. In 1998, students pursuing their education in the West Bank were approximately 1,000 students. However, the number has dwindled to few dozen due to the ongoing travel restrictions.[21]

De-mobility impacts extend the limitations on student travel; it affects infrastructure and teaching materials of higher education institutions. Importing essential items such as laboratory equipment and books has been prohibited, further hindering the progress of academic activities. The Islamic university is an obvious example, where Israeli attacks led to the destruction of approximately 74 laboratories. Engineering faculty research projects have come to a halt due to university’s inability to import necessary items needed, despite the urgent need for equipment replacement. Likewise, since 2005, Al-Azhar University has been unable to import new publications to its library collection, resulting in limiting students’ and faculty’s access to current and relevant resources.[22]

These conditions posed significant challenges to higher education community in Gaza.  The 2014 war on Gaza emphasized the dire circumstances students and their lecturers confront, with limited possibilities to escape, and inadequate shelters to protect them from life-threatening situations. Since 2007, the experience of life threating situations has been constantly repeated, forcing the higher education community to prioritize survival. During 2014 war, disastrous impact on higher education sector was indisputable, with roughly 407 students and 9 staff members including academics and administrative were killed, in addition to 1,128 students suffered injuries.[23]

Financial dilemmas: The financial capacities of Gazan families declined significantly due to the blockade and increasing unemployment since the second intifada in 2000. The financial resources of higher education institutions in Gaza have been directly affected by these factors. The main financial sources for these institutions are students’ tuition fees and Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) annual allocations. Yet, since 2016, MOHE allocations have been abandoned, exacerbating the financial dilemma faced by these institutions.

The retreat of financial resources has caused a significant decrease in the number of students enrolled in the main three universities in Gaza: Al-Azhar University, Al-Islamiah University, and the University College of Applied Sciences. The total number of students attending these universities decreased from 45,000 in 2010 to 3,000 in 2019. As a consequence of declining registration rates and accumulated dept, a cancellation of several degrees and departments has been enforced.[24] A significant structural financial dilemma in higher education institutions occurred due to the notable decline in the enrollment rate, where only 20% to 40% of students have been able to pay their fees in recent years. An average of 30,000 graduates were unable to receive their certificate by January 2023 due to financial reasons.[25]  In 2019, the average debt of universities reached $30 million, correspondingly, intermittent payments of salaries have been done, besides replacing salaries with unstable financial rewards. This drove universities to rely on part time employment in order to manage their financial challenges.[26]

The HEIs in Gaza after October 7

The wholesale destruction of Gaza’s Higher Education Institutions has received significant international criticism, including in South Africa’s case alleging genocide to the International Court of Justice. On January 23, 2024, following the bombing of Al-Israa University, United States demanded an official explanation for targeting the university. Israeli response claimed by the Chief of Staff of Israeli army, announced an investigation into the incident, stating that preliminary investigation revealed that “Hamas had been utilizing the university and its surroundings for terrorist operations against the military.”[27]  However, no official results from the investigation were released thereafter.[28] Afkhai Adre, the Arabic spokesman for the Israeli Army, claimed that the Israeli Army had “destroyed a number of buildings containing Hamas infrastructure at Al-Azhar University”.[29]

However, according to Omar Al-Hendi, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the University, the destruction of the University was not an isolated incident but rather part of a larger campaign targeting HE sector since long before the war, which involved the killing of academics and students, preventing travel and preventing the recruitment of academics, restrictions on scientific research, etc.[30]

Educide

South Africa’s application to ICJ shed light on the systematic educide characterized by Israel’s predetermination to target and destroy higher education institutions in Gaza. This destructive practice led to the loss of universities and to a tragic death of esteemed Palestinian academics. The Israeli Professor Neve Gordon expressed his concern, stating  “academia has been destroyed” in Gaza as part of an “educide.” Gordon warned that “the damage of three months will take 10 to 20 years to recover from.”[31] In its application to the ICJ, South Africa detailed the systematic targeting of Higher Education in Gaza:

“Israel has targeted every one of Gaza’s four universities — including the Islamic University of Gaza, the oldest higher education institution in the territory, which has trained generations of doctors and engineers, amongst others, destroying campuses for the education of future generations of Palestinians in Gaza. Alongside so many others, Israel has killed leading Palestinian academics, including: Professor Sufian Tayeh, the President of the Islamic University — an award-winning physicist and UNESCO Chair of Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Palestine — who died, alongside his family, in an airstrike; Dr Ahmed Hamdi Abo Absa, Dean of the Software Engineering Department at the University of Palestine, reportedly shot dead by Israeli soldiers as he walked away, having been released from three days of enforced disappearance; and Professor Muhammad Eid Shabir, Professor of Immunology and Virology, and former President of the Islamic University of Gaza, and Professor Refaat Alareer, poet and Professor of Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the Islamic University of Gaza, were both killed by Israel with members of their families. Professor Alareer was a co-founder of ‘We are Not Numbers’, a Palestinian youth project seeking to tell the stories behind otherwise impersonal accounts of Palestinians — and Palestinian deaths — in the news”[32].

The entangled principles of de-development, spatial cleansing, and educide paint a grim picture of the hidden war against education. Over the years since 2007, there has been an escalation of policies in spatial cleansing and de-development which have laid the ground for Israel’s attack on education in Gaza. De-development can be seen through the systematic restriction imposed on educational institutions, which disrupts the immediate access to education, alongside undermining the long-term development of this sector. Also, by preventing the movement of scholars and limiting their ability to engage in international academic collaborations, the occupying forces systematically isolate the Palestinian education system, hindering its growth and development.

Spatial cleansing involves the deliberate destruction and targeting of physical spaces tied to higher education. This means that university buildings, laboratories, and other essential facilities are intentionally demolished, effectively disrupting and dismantling the higher education sector. Spatial cleansing, which also includes the forced displacement and removal of Palestinians from their homes, performs a crucial position inside the educide process. By uprooting people from their familiar environment, spatial cleansing irrupts the educational process, inflicting a ripple effect all the education system. Displaced students are deprived from getting access to universities and hindering their academic progress. Spatial cleansing illuminates the systematic nature of the occupation’s policies, which extend beyond mere military actions. The deliberate eradication of these vital spaces demonstrates a concerted effort to stifle intellectual and educational growth among the Palestinian population.

The destruction of the educational system not only denies people their right to an education, but also jeopardizes society’s intellectual and human capital of the entire society. It stifles the potential and ambitions of Palestinian people by methodically eliminating teachers and pupils, thereby extending a cycle of control and oppression. By concentrating on faculties and universities, Israel not only bodily dismantles the infrastructure, it also targets Palestinian national identity and its history. This intentional destruction denies Palestinians satisfactory education, perpetuating a cycle of educational deprivation and marginalization and hindering their ability to build a brighter future. This hinders the collective advancement and development of society as a whole.

Conclusion

The progression from spatial cleansing and de-development to educide accurately describe the intentional techniques employed to undermine the progress and potential of the Palestinian humans. It is a calculated strategy, designed to assert control and suppress the Palestinian by destroying spaces where critical thinking and the exchange of ideas flourish. These three elements work together as a strategy to systematically demolish the higher education sector and deny Palestinians their fundamental right to education.  Furthermore, it seeks to erase the collective memory, cultural heritage, intellectual growth of the Palestinian people. By maintaining control and stifling any form of resistance or intellectual advancement, it effectively hampers Palestinian access to knowledge and intellectual development.

These measures collectively are a serious blow to Gaza’s HE system. The loss of lives and destruction of universities are all factors of the educide. Educide has far-reaching effects since it caps societal growth and advancement. Educide in Gaza encourages a vicious circle of oppression and control, and foster violations of human rights, necessitating acknowledgement and addressing of such phenomenon.

 

References:

[1] The Department of Political Science, Birzeit University, irabaia@birzeit.edu

[2] The Director of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies, Birzeit University, lhabash@birzeit.edu.

[3] Federation of Arab Scientific Research Councils condemns the Israeli attack and targeting the scientific intuitions. WAFA. 22/12/2023.  https://www.wafa.ps/Pages/Details/86868

[4] Shms: The Israeli destruction of the schools and universities in Gaza, is systematic de education policy. Shams. 07/11/2023 https://www.shams-pal.org/?p=5795 .

[5] An updated list of the names of professors and academics killed by Israel’s genocidal military campaign in Gaza Strip. the official MOHE page on Facebook.

[6] Israel’s demolition of educational institutions, cultural objects in Gaza is additional manifestation of genocide. Euro-mid Human Rights Monitor. 16/02/2024. https://2u.pw/uuP16x0

[7] Ben Gvir calls to kill “The candy distributors” and Netanyahu challenges international pressures to end the war. Al-Jazeera. 12/11/2023. https://2u.pw/4TDdPRC.

[8] Rahmah Hussein. How Israel Destroyed High Education Sector in Gaza?.7ibr. 24/01/2024. https://2u.pw/zI2BVlM

[9] For more information about bare education in Palestine refer to the article “Exception of the Exception: Palestinian «Bare» Education under Colonialism in Palestine” in Omran , issue 9 : 33 summer 2020.  This article demonstrates the ways through which the Israeli colonisation has affected the structure of the Palestinian education in the Occupied Territories since 1967.

[10] Saad Al-Waheidi. The Islamic University of Gaza.. A History of Israeli Targeting. Al-Jazeera. 03/11/2023. https://2u.pw/zcpz9Gx .

[11] Saad Al-Waheidi. Ibid.

[12] Sari Hanafi. (2009). Spacio-cide: colonial politics, invisibility and rezoning in Palestinian territory. Contemporary Arab Affairs2(1), 106-121.‏

[13] By 2022, around 10 HEI in Gaza were not recognized by the MOHE, some were branches for universities in the West Bank, such as Al-Quds Open University.

[14] Higher Education Statistical yearbook (2021-2022). (Ramallah: MOHE, 2022). P.29.

[15] Rahmah Hussein. How Israel Destroyed High Education Sector in Gaza?.7ibr. 24/01/2024. https://2u.pw/zI2BVlM

[16] Pecdar: $22 Million the losses of Public Schools and Universities in Gaza. Maan News. 02/09/2014. https://www.maannews.net/news/724870.html

[17] Rahmah Hussein. Ibid.

[18] Rahmah Hussein. Ibid.

[19] Mona Jebril (2023) Between construction and destruction: the experience of educationalists at Gaza’s universities, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 53:6, 986-1004, DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2021.1987190

[20] A Palestinian University Refuses the Israeli Restrictions on employing and registering foreigners in WB. Al-Jazeera. 13/03/2022.  https://2u.pw/EJINLSx .

[21] Freedom of Movement Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. UNHR. (Annual Report). February 2016. .https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Countries/PS/SG_Report_FoM_Feb2016.pdf, P.11.

[22] Situation of the Right of Higher Education in Gaza under Blockade. Mezan. (Report) May 2010. https://www.mezan.org/uploads/files/11343.pdf

[23] : Sansom Milton, Ghassan Elkahlout & Sultan Barakat (2023) Protecting higher education from attack in the Gaza Strip, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 53:6, Pp. 1024-1042. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2021.1987192

[24] Financial crises ravage Gaza universities and warnings of imminent collapse. Al-Jazeera. 23/07/2019. https://2u.pw/rlgAcol

[25] National Campaign to Demand a Reduction in University Fees. https://www.facebook.com/edu.palstine/

[26] Financial crises ravage Gaza universities and warnings of imminent collapse. Ibid.

[27] With Photos and Videos: BBC Records the Destruction of Most Gaza’s Universirties. BBC Arabic. 10/03/2024. https://www.bbc.com/arabic/articles/czqz1w49j41o

[28] Emanuel Fabian. IDF says it is probing demolition of campus in Gaza last week, after US voiced ire. Time of Israel. 21/01/2024. https://www.mako.co.il/news-military/2024_q1/Article-6528ae7f23c2d81026.htm

[29] Israel: We destroyed Hamas infrastructure at University in Gaza. Sky News Arabia. 08/12/2023. https://2u.pw/E2iroSz .

[30] Al-Israa University Page on Facebook. 24/01/2024. https://www.facebook.com/israaedu

[31] Patrick Jack. Academia in Gaza ‘has been destroyed’ by Israeli ‘educide’. The Times Higher Education. 29/01/2024. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academia-gaza-has-been-destroyed-israeli-educide

[32] Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel). ICJ. 28/12/2023. https://www.icj-cij.org/sites/default/files/case-related/192/192-20231228-app-01-00-en.pdf