Scholars and students fight to keep Palestinian education alive

Even as undergraduates battle to survive in besieged Rafah, they are seeking to continue their studies

May 17, 2024
Palestinian artist draws Palestinian flag and Al-Aqsa Mosque, symbolising solidarity in Gaza, on the wall of a building that was heavily damaged as a result of the attacks in Rafah, Gaza on 30 April, 2024
Source: Ramez Habboub/Anadolu/Getty Images

Two hundred days into the invasion of Gaza by Israel and not a single university is left standing. At least 95 university professors and 5,000 students are reported to have been killed, while more than 500,000 children have been out of school for over seven months.

“Everything was beautiful before 7 October,” lamented Besan Emad, an English translation student at Gaza University trapped in Rafah, the southern city that, at the time of writing, was one of the last parts of the Gaza Strip outside the control of the Israeli military. “We could find everything easily. We had AI we could use. But today we have no internet, no resources and no university.”

In the short term, the focus for Palestinian civilians fleeing Israeli attacks is survival. “The situation in Rafah is very bad…Israeli occupation has destroyed everything – hospital, schools, universities,” said Ms Emad.

Yet, even in the face of a strategy branded “educide” – an attempt to extinguish breeding grounds for intellectual thought and liberty of expression within Palestine, as part of the retaliation against Hamas’ 7 October attacks – efforts to preserve higher education in Gaza and the West Bank might offer an unlikely symbol of hope.

Ms Emad is one of a growing number of Palestinian students attempting to continue their studies in the harshest of conditions through online learning, accessing tutoring offered by global scholars when she is able to get online.

An aspiring journalist who had started an internship with the Associated Press, Ms Emad said her online courses “helped me to practise English and teach me a lot of words, a lot of sentences, the skills needed to be a good journalist and how to speak clearly”.

And, while Ms Emad acknowledged that many students had set aside many of their learning and career objectives since the conflict erupted, she still had ambitious career goals: “I would love to be an international translator and share news of my country to everyone in the world. I want a free Gaza, where we can move freely without borders.”

Marah Shaqalaih is another Palestinian student accessing online courses, with hers offered by universities in the West Bank. The daughter of a former engineering lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza, her own institution, Al-Azhar University of Gaza, was destroyed by the Israeli military.

Having managed to flee with her family to Egypt, Ms Shaqalaih – who had just started her fifth year of dentistry school when her university was razed – said it was hard to comprehend the scale of destruction in her homeland.

“We started [the academic year] and only two weeks in the war began. I was with my patients and [was] talking to them, and now I do not know what happened to them,” she said.

The Israeli army claimed that it found Hamas explosives and rocket parts at Al-Azhar, as well as part of a tunnel network. But the university, which was one of the biggest universities in the Gaza Strip with about 15,000 undergraduates, had no affiliation to Hamas, Ms Shaqalaih insisted. “They [the Israeli military] claimed that there were military operations in the university. There were no ground operations going on at the time so what motive did they have? The campus was beautiful. They just don’t want anything beautiful in Gaza,” she said.

The communication between Al-Azhar and its students after the Israeli invasion was unsurprisingly chaotic and it was a few months into the conflict before Ms Shaqalaih was able to access her transcript. Now she hopes that an intensive course to finish her remaining subjects, combined with a practical training course in Egypt, will allow her to get her certificate and start work. “Because I have [had] two years of online Zoom meetings and lectures because of Covid…I know how to deal with it,” Ms Shaqalaih said.

She had ambitions of working at her uncle’s dental clinic in Gaza, she said, but it was now destroyed and, while she was very uncertain of her return to her homeland, she still had career plans: “I want to incorporate AI into dentistry and delve deeper into digital dentistry,” Ms Shaqalaih said.

Palestine’s higher education sector is young – its universities were only formed in the 1970s – but its tertiary enrolment ratio had grown to 45 per cent by 2022. Even before the latest eruption of violence, institutions in Gaza and the West Bank operated under severe restrictions on mobility and funding.

Ms Shaqalaih’s father, Tarsir Shaqalaih, recalled that falling enrolments took a heavy toll on finances, with academic salaries at his own institution being cut almost in half, pushing many highly skilled scholars to leave for foreign institutions. “All that affected the quality of higher education,” he said. “Also, the high unemployment rate, which reached about 70 per cent among girls, gave the younger generation a perception that there is no link between employment and education.”

Most university professors in Gaza have not received a salary since November, with many institutions telling their staff to seek other jobs. Fabio Carbone, a senior lecturer in tourism management at the University of Northampton, who has been working to recruit academic tutors for university students from Gaza, said that no international organisation would give money to universities in the strip because of their perceived ties to Hamas, “and the politics have nothing to do with academia any more…the victims in this are the students”, he said.

Beyond the destruction in Gaza, the situation in the West Bank has also worsened drastically since 7 October. The number of checkpoints and searches by Israeli soldiers has increased significantly, and all the universities switched initially to online teaching in a bid to protect students.

Samia Al-Botmeh, an assistant professor of economics at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said that higher education had been “substantially” affected. “There were also heightened arrests of students and staff. We have more than 150 students in prison at the moment, and we’ve got five staff members in prison,” she said.

“Teaching has become extremely difficult. In the second term we have gone back into hybrid teaching. So students come into university three days a week.”

Most foreign scholars have fled. “Colleagues travelling internationally into Palestinian universities, either for joint research projects or conferences, or wanting to teach a term – it’s become impossible,” Dr Al-Botmeh said.

She is among the academics involved in teaching online courses, with the first of two planned terms getting under way at the start of this month. Students will get three two-hour classes each week, with exams set to be conducted electronically and their grades transferred to their original universities.

The initiative has been well received, with more than 8,000 students applying to Birzeit alone, but its success is still endangered by its reliance on access to stable internet connections, which are difficult to secure for many Gazans.

Northampton’s Dr Carbone acknowledged that the challenges facing such initiatives went beyond practicalities alone. “They [universities] are offering free online enrolment for Gazans, and many are re-enrolling, but in the long term that means that Gaza will not have universities, because it will not have students – not because of the infrastructure,” he said.

Academics4Gaza, the initiative that he set up, is seeking to help in its own way, so far recruiting more than 100 scholars from around the world to support Gazan university students. Three-quarters of the students it is supporting currently are women enrolled at Al-Aqsa University, the Islamic University of Gaza and the University of Palestine, but “we keep receiving requests for help and we are trying to support as much as we can”.

“The message from the students is that during the day they are mainly looking for food and try to remain close to shelter, and they contact me from their tents,” Dr Carbone continued. “I have found people on the ground in Gaza to provide support. It’s not only about learning, but also [the] protection of the young people.”

Dr Shaqalaih, the engineer, said that while the efforts to support higher education for Palestinians were welcome, at times it felt like the challenges such approaches faced seemed insurmountable.

“We are only providing a patch solution to students who want to continue their studies. The future of higher education in Gaza is quite uncertain,” he said.

But Dr Carbone acknowledged that, though higher education might seem a distant hope to some young Palestinians battling to stay alive in Rafah, it was important to keep the flame of higher education burning in both Gaza and the West Bank.

“My background is history – I studied wars, and wars can be very long, but during wars people still make children, keep working somehow and keep thinking about their future,” he said. “The main element that keeps them alive is hope.”

Birzeit’s Dr Al-Botmeh agreed. “We have to contribute practically towards enabling the population to survive the ongoing genocide. And part of that process of empowering is to bring some form of normality to life and remind people that there is hope,” she said.


Print headline: Gazan students and scholars fight to keep learning

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