The destruction of Gaza’s universities

12 May 2024
Robin Laycock
A man rides his bike past the destroyed Al Aqsa University in Gaza city in February PHOTO: AFP

The spread of pro-Palestine encampments at universities across the US, and now across nearly a dozen Australian universities, is an electrifying example of peaceful civil disobedience. It is the only decent response to the videos of Palestinian children sitting in blood-soaked clothes, confused, and trembling in shock that confront us every time we turn on the news.

As a long-time activist with the university staff union, the National Tertiary Education Union, it has been so heartening to see students challenging the universities’ links with Israel in this way, in particular the extensive weapons research that takes place on our campuses and directly contributes to the deaths of Palestinians.

But there is another very compelling reason why those of us working and studying on campuses have an obligation to show solidarity with Palestine and oppose Israel’s genocide: because Israel is systematically destroying the education system in Gaza.

Israel’s targeting of hospitals has been well documented, and rightly so. The destruction of electricity works, water treatment facilities and food production has also received some attention—again rightly, because it poses an immediate risk to survival.

But the destruction of libraries, museums, schools and universities is also an important element of genocide. Israel’s bombing of education facilities, along with the murder or more than 5,400 students and 260 teachers, and the assassination of academics and scientists, is a deliberate effort to systematically destroy the entire Gazan education system.

This action has been described as scholasticide, a term coined following the 2009 war on Gaza. Within the first few days of the 2009 assault, Israel had bombed the Islamic University.

During the current war, twelve of the sixteen university and higher education campuses in Gaza have been severely or moderately damaged. At least four have been completely destroyed. None of Gaza’s 88,000 university students have been able to attend classes since the war began, and more than 500 international scholarship recipients have been unable to leave Gaza to pursue their studies according to the Euro-Med Monitor. In March, the International Monetary Fund estimated that 70 percent of Gaza’s colleges and universities had been destroyed.

In a brazen act of destruction, on 17 January Israel annihilated Al-Israa University. Israeli defence forces had already taken over and occupied the campus for 70 days, using it as an operational base and a detention facility. But then the IDF laid out over 300 mines and demolished the entire university, like a controlled detonation of a condemned building.

According to the Euro-Med Monitor, Al-Aqsa University in Gaza City was targeted on 6 February, resulting in two buildings being completely destroyed and others severely damaged. The main headquarters of Al-Azhar University and most of the Islamic University, also in Gaza City, were similarly destroyed by airstrikes last October and November.

It has not just been universities under fire. Nearly 90 percent of Gaza’s approximately 737 primary and secondary schools have sustained significant damage or been destroyed.

This is an obscene picture, particularly considering the disproportionately young population of Gaza. More than half of the 2.1 million people living in Gaza are under 20, while nearly 40 percent are of school age.

Chillingly, Israeli soldiers have found joy in the wanton destruction. Videos have surfaced showing Israeli forces cheering after bombing various schools, including an UNRWA school in northern Gaza.

Targeted bombing of schools and universities is of course part of the collective punishment that Israel has pursued in Gaza during this war and has been meting out to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank for more than seven decades. Targeting intellectuals and writers has also been a long-term Israeli strategy.

Palestinians have a particularly strong affinity for education and learning. They have extraordinarily high rates of literacy, despite the terrible conditions Israel imposes on them, and education and culture have long been a vital part of Palestinian resistance. Which is why it’s so disastrous that all Gaza’s schools have been closed since the Israeli offensive began last October. While survival is clearly the first concern, children are less likely to return to school the longer they have been kept away. Instability and lack of routine, not to mention the trauma of witnessing a war, will present significant challenges in the future for the Gazan children who survive.

Wiping out schools and universities is part of the project of destroying the Palestinian people. In this sense, it’s an abomination that most universities around the world have failed to condemn the destruction of Gaza’s education system, or the genocide that campaign is a part of. Instead, university administrations accuse the student protests of being disruptive or “violent”, and continue to do business with the companies and Israeli institutions that make this war possible.

For this reason, the now-global uprising of students occupying their campuses and sending solidarity to Gaza is a vital and inspiring development that all of us should support.

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