As Gaza’s Lives and Homes Are Destroyed, So Is Its Higher Education

The destruction of higher education in Gaza isn’t ‘collateral damage’ but part of Israel’s policy of erasing both the physical and spiritual infrastructure

On January 17, the last university that remained intact in the Gaza Strip was bombed and completely destroyed. The Israel Defense Forces used large quantities of explosives and didn’t leave a trace of Israa University, south of Gaza City.

According to reports, in the preceding 70 days, Israeli forces used the university building as a military base and detention center for the interrogation of Palestinian detainees before they were sent to unknown destinations.

So it’s clear that the university building wasn’t considered dangerous. It’s also clear that the explosion occurred inside the building and wasn’t the work of an airstrike.

The IDF says the incident is under investigation, as if this were an unusual event. But a look at the broader context proves that there was nothing really exceptional here when it comes to the destructive policy carried out since October 7. That policy is a continuation – a very intensified one – of Israel’s policy on Palestinian academia.

For more than 40 years, Palestinian universities have suffered systematic harassment by the Israeli occupier. At various times, campuses have been ordered closed, while during “routine” times, the inviting of guest lecturers has been banned, as have departures abroad for training and conferences. Restrictions on movement in the West Bank have impeded studies and the students themselves, and staff members have frequently been arrested.

In Gaza, the situation has always been worse, particularly with the blockade and ban on importing construction materials to rebuild the classrooms that have been destroyed in every Israeli assault. This comes on top of the restrictions on importing books and other instructional materials. Cooperation between academic institutions in the West Bank and Gaza has also been severely crimped.

This prevents Gazan students from completing courses at West Bank universities, which are better equipped. These students also have very limited opportunities to leave the enclave for conferences or additional study. A number of times, students have been awarded scholarships from prestigious universities in Europe and the United States only to be relegated to the prison that is Gaza.

All this has immeasurably worsened since October 7. In the West Bank, classes are being held mainly online and with virtually no campus life due to the roadblocks that have gone up around every West Bank community as the settlers ramp up their violence. Many faculty members and students have been arrested, and many have been sent into administrative detention – detention without trial.

The destruction of Gaza’s universities began with the bombing of the Islamic University in the first week of the war and continued with airstrikes on Al-Azhar University on November 4. Since then, all of Gaza’s academic institutions have been destroyed, as well as many schools, libraries, archives and other educational institutions.

It’s important to note the destruction down to the foundations of Gaza’s main municipal archive, with its historical documents, as well as the municipal library and two branches – in Beit Lahia and Gaza City – of the Edward Said English-language library. Historical buildings and archaeological sites have also been bombed and potential finds lost.

Beyond the destruction of infrastructure, hundreds of students and many faculty members have died in the bombings. Sources say that at least 94 faculty members from Gaza universities have been killed in the war.

Recently it emerged that Fadel Abu Hein, an internationally known psychology professor from Al-Aqsa University, was among the dead. He specialized in trauma among children – he also researched the trauma suffered by Gaza’s kids during the frequent bombing. According to news reports, he was shot by a sniper.

At the end of November, the Jabalya home of the Islamic University’s president, the physicist Prof. Sufyan Tayeh, was bombed; he and members of his family were killed. At the beginning of December, a guided missile killed writer, poet and researcher Refaat Alareer, who taught literature and creative writing at the university. His sister and other family members were also killed.

Palestinian academic life has been almost completely destroyed and will need many years to rebuild. If and when that happens, it will require new equipment, the reconstruction of university buildings, and most importantly, the return of the faculty members and students who survive. Many of them are scarred emotionally and physically, and some have lost parents.

Those who remain will be recovering from months of displacement, loss, hunger and disease. Palestinians in Gaza repeatedly talk about the sense of loss over the destruction of homes, which also means the loss of books and other educational materials.

Intellectual life is the lifeblood of every society. Palestinian society is known for its high rate of people with higher education. Despite the isolation, the occupation and the blockade over the years, this society has produced highly regarded intellectuals and scientists such as sociologist Salim Tamari, economist Jihad al-Wazir, playwright and artist Ibtisam Barakat, film director Elia Suleiman and political scientist Khalil Shikaki.

A few key Palestinian academics have been assassination targets, while others have been arrested and imprisoned. History teaches that the destruction of higher education in Gaza and the methodical harassment of students in the West Bank isn’t “collateral damage” but part of Israel’s policy of erasing not only the physical infrastructure but also the spiritual.

Israel’s academic institutions don’t mention this destruction and its ramifications for the future of both the Palestinian and Israeli societies. On the contrary, all their announcements praise the army’s actions during the war without casting the slightest doubt on the justness of the methods. And university heads condemn groups of academics abroad who express rage at the catastrophe that Israel is sowing in Gaza, including the deliberate erasure of spiritual and cultural life.

I believe that we Israeli academics must make our voices heard against the destruction of Gaza’s higher education and the harm to its other educational and cultural institutions. We must not be silent in the face of the mass killing of students and our colleagues, or the mass arrest of others.

As academics, as well as researchers, lecturers and students, it’s our duty to raise our voices against the killing and destruction to demand accountability from the government responsible, and to save who and what can still be saved.

Dr. Anat Matar is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s philosophy department and a member of the group Academia for Equality.

  • Photo: The Islamic University in Gaza City after it was bombed by Israel in October. Archives and libraries are also being destroyed.Credit: Saleh Salem/Reuters