Palestinian campuses head into abyss as Israeli retaliation grows

With mobility severely limited and no connection or contact from Gaza colleagues, West Bank academics describe atmosphere of anguish

October 25, 2023
An injured man is pulled from rubble in Gaza
Source: Getty Images

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and crackdown in the West Bank have led to complete shutdown of or serious disruptions, respectively, to universities in both territories – with the ongoing war posing a devastating setback to Palestinian higher education in the long run, according to scholars there.

After the Hamas attacks killed 1,400 Israelis, Israel has bombarded the densely populated Gaza Strip. More than 5,000 people have been reported killed by the strikes, amid a mounting humanitarian crisis.

Both the Islamic University of Gaza and Al-Azhar University have sustained serious damage to numerous buildings, according to reports. The Israel Defense Forces claimed that the former was used as a Hamas training ground. The status of other Gaza-based institutions is unclear, with almost no information leaving the territory.

Academics from three West Bank institutions told Times Higher Education that the conflict has made education impossible in Gaza. Scholars have been unable to reach their colleagues and students in the strip, with power and water completely cut and people fleeing their homes.

Meanwhile, for West Bank universities, an already bad situation has worsened. Universities there were forced to take learning online from the start of the war on 7 October, with Israel initially stopping movement between walled zones within the territory. Overseas academics have fled, while many non-local students are trapped in the West Bank. International conferences have been cancelled.

Institutions, which operate in an already fragile ecosystem – facing numerous setbacks, from difficulty procuring lab equipment to frequent denials of visas for students and scholars – have been crippled by the recent outbreak of fighting, academics said.

“This is one of the worst attacks ever,” said Elham Kateeb, dean of scientific research at Al-Quds University, located in East Jerusalem.

“The killings, invasion, disruption that’s happening on daily basis, this is not allowing us to move forward…our researchers are trying very hard…but when we think we are moving forward, something like this sets us back, I don’t know how many months or years.”

Like other West Bank universities, Al-Quds reacted swiftly to news of the Hamas attacks, directing students to return home, fearing they were unsafe on campus, where Israeli troops regularly make arrests.

At Al-Quds, which specialises in medicine, roughly 70 per cent of learning happens in clinics or in the lab, but the university has switched to teaching theory for now, difficult in a place with slow and scant internet access. For those who can attend, focusing is near impossible.

“I had today a lecture. I tried at the beginning to talk to students…I asked, do you feel safe now at home? They said ‘no’,” said Dr Kateeb.

She has also struggled, trawling the news and social media for any sign of colleagues in Gaza, with 200 students in six graduate programmes there.

“Every 10 minutes I grab my phone and when I do, I can’t leave it for an hour,” she said. “I have a PhD student in Gaza. Five days ago…I gave her feedback on her work…but she didn’t respond.”

Samia Al-Botmeh, assistant professor of economics at Birzeit University, echoed the sentiment.

“We’re going back to basics, back to square zero,” she said. “No one is able to concentrate on classes…they’re unable to reach colleagues and family in Gaza, so in many cases, they don’t know if they’re even alive.”

She said that academics were doing what they could to petition for those in Gaza.

“That’s what academics and students at my university are doing – basically trying to explain the context. This did not start on 7 October, this started in 1948,” she said, referencing the first Arab-Israeli war.

Dr Al-Botmeh said that since the most recent violence, six Birzeit students have been arrested, with a total of 85 students currently detained by Israeli authorities, including some under “administrative detention”, meaning they are being held without trial – something so commonplace at her university that it has a protocol for reintegrating such students into the classroom.

Academics emphasised that ongoing violence, with incursions by Israeli authorities and border closures, was an extension of what has been going on in Palestine for years.

“Now we face a situation of not just humiliation at checkpoints…but even the violence of the settlers,” said Raed Debiy, a political scientist at An-Najah National University.

He noted that for decades, education has been a “symbol of resistance and non-violence” for Palestinians. “Having a university means keeping people in their land,” he said.

“We appeal to the international academic family to show more solidarity and put more pressure on the occupation side to give Palestinian academics equal rights for research, right of movement and for Palestinian students.”

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Reader's comments (1)

'War' - involving terrorist organizations Irgun and the Stern Gang. Just a cycle of violence. These poor people. What Mandela opined.