Education in Gaza Has Been Decimated, but the Spirit of Refaat Alareer Will Prevail

The student encampments and other protests like the “Fund Education, Not Genocide” rally in Washington D.C. this week are the expressions of solidarity and activism we need.

Yousef Aljamal

Palestinians are sheltering inside this UNRWA school in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on May 17, 2024, even though it has been severely damaged by Israeli assaults. Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

Palestinians have always been proud to have one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world. 

Many Palestinian refugees, who lost their homes in the Nakba and Naksa, believe that investment in education is the way out — the way for them to survive and overcome poverty and pave the ground for a better life for their families and for future generations.

School students and teachers have always been a target for the Israeli state because they play such a critical role in mobilizing against Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine.

Palestinian education has thrived not because of Israel, but despite it. Despite Israeli raids into schools, despite the demolitions of educational institutions, despite attacks from settlers, despite the arrests of students and staff. 

Despite all of these assaults, the Palestinian education system has managed to survive, providing Palestinians with the knowledge to not only work but also with the tools to resist Israel’s systems of apartheid and control. 

School students and teachers have always been a target for the Israeli state because they play such a critical role in mobilizing against Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine — not only through protests but also through curriculum that centers liberation and challenges Israel’s dominant narratives that seek to control and dehumanize the Palestinian people.

Over the last seven months, one of the main targets of the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza has been schools, universities and other educational institutions. Many Palestinian teachers have also been murdered, including Gaza’s educator and storyteller Refaat Alareer, who helped establish the sorts of systems of teaching and learning that allowed Palestinians to understand their history and surroundings away from Israel’s control.

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Many of the schools in Gaza are now in ruins, used as places to station Israeli soldiers or turned into shelters for internally displaced Palestinians. The damage the education system has suffered is beyond imagination. There has been almost a total destruction of educational institutions in Gaza, with 90% of the schools destroyed or damaged to varying degrees and about 100 scholars have been killed, as have some 5,500 students. Healing and reconstructing the systems of education in Gaza will take years.

A damaged school west of Gaza City. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

Only sustained and collective efforts by those who care about education in Palestine can provide remedies to this catastrophe. These might include providing scholarships for students from Gaza, allowing exchange visits with universities in Gaza and giving students in Gaza access to online libraries, as well as sending university professors to teach in Gaza to break the intellectual siege. Such interventions would only be successful if the full context of the recent destruction — Israel’s decades-long siege and system of control which had already long exhausted the education system, students and staff — is considered in rebuilding efforts.

There is no doubt that student encampments around the world were inspired by the resilience of the people of Gaza, including students, teachers and staff, and in reaction to the killing of so many of them. These encampments have provided messages of hope to the people of Gaza who have been following them as Israeli bombs fall. Some Palestinians in Gaza wrote statements of support and appreciation for the student encampments on their tents after being displaced by the Israeli army, thanking them for their solidarity. 

In fact, student encampments and campus occupations have honored the memories of Palestinian victims in Gaza in many ways, including by renaming a hall at Colombia University as Hind’s Hall (named after six-year-old Hind Rajab, who was killed in late January), and naming makeshift libraries after Alareer (where Haymarket Books has often supplied the volumes and continues to offer free books to Gaza solidarity encampments on campuses across the country).

The message behind these actions is clear: We hear the pain of students and educators in Gaza and we will let our campuses know about them, too, so that their death and starvation comes to an end.

The message behind these actions is clear: We hear the pain of students and educators in Gaza and we will let our campuses know about them, too, so that their death and starvation comes to an end.

The Debt Collective, an organization in the United States that focuses on the ways debt and racial capitalism impact our lives and feed so many types of oppression, is holding a rally and action in Washington D.C. on May 22 that calls on President Joe Biden’s administration to fund education, not genocide,” a direct reference to the U.S. government’s continuing military aid to Israel. 

These U.S. weapons that have been given to Israel — and continue to be provided — were used to destroy schools and other infrastructure and systems of education in Gaza. Protesters in Washington D.C. on Wednesday will be calling on the Biden administration to abolish student debts in the United States instead of sending billions of dollars to Israel, which it uses to kill Palestinian educators and students as well as to destroy Gaza’s schools. 

The Debt Collective’s message is clear: invest in education, not wars.

It bears repeating that Israel has not only attacked schools and the infrastructures of teaching and learning in Gaza, but it has also killed 94 university professors, many of whom had advanced degrees in their fields, and targeted Israeli missile attacks killed three university presidents in Gaza, alongside their families. These actions along with many others have prompted the use of the terms educide” and scholasticide” to describe Israel’s assassinations of scholars and the destruction of the education system. 

Student protesters at Columbia University renamed Hamilton Hall as Hind's Hal, named after a Palestinian child killed by the Israeli military. Photo by Alex Kent/Getty Images

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education, as of April 2024, the Israeli military had killed 261 teachers and 5,479 students in Gaza. This adds to the larger attacks on education that hare happening across the globe, as police attack students and their encampments, sacking them and hauling off many to jail. These attacks on the student movements may translate into more censorship, at least in the short term, where students and staff will have fewer spaces to express their opinions and speak truth to power.

The attacks on the Palestinian systems of education by Israel cannot be separated from the widespread censorship and the global attack on student movements and encampments in solidarity with Gaza.

DOCUMENTED DESTRUCTION

Before October 7, some 625,000 students attended 813 schools run by 22,000 teachers in 563 school buildings in Gaza, according to the Global Education Cluster (EC). Some of the schools had so many students enrolled that they operated two shifts. 

But now, some 90% of all schools in Gaza have either been completely destroyed or sustained various degrees of damage. All six major universities in Gaza, including the Islamic University of Gaza that was founded in 1978, have been leveled by Israeli airstrikes.

Israeli bombs and assaults on schools make no distinction between private, governmental or humanitarian-built schools like those backed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). According to some statistics, at least 212 of government-run school buildings have been directly hit or damaged, along with 107 of UNRWA schools and 70 private schools.

It is likely that the schools will not be able to function as schools for quite some time, as well, as there is such a dire need of shelters, even damaged ones.

Any effort to rebuild will be monumental. At least 67% of schools in Gaza will need full reconstruction or major rehabilitation in order to reopen. About 320 schools, 65 of which were partially or badly damaged, have been turned into shelters for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). It is likely that the schools will not be able to function as schools for quite some time, as well, as there is such a dire need of shelters, even damaged ones.

Even if the drums of war were to stop today, the United Nations has reported that it may take up to 80 years to rebuild all the destroyed or damaged homes and schools in Gaza.

ATTACKS ON EDUCATION

Israel seeks to destroy — or at the very least control — every aspect of the education sector in Gaza. But these efforts and this control is not limited to Gaza; for years Israel has placed restrictions on Palestinian education. In Jerusalem, Israeli authorities imposed a history curriculum on Palestinians that promotes the Israeli point of view, depriving Palestinian students from learning their own history. It seems like Palestinians need a permit to tell their own story — a reality we refuse to accept. 

It seems like Palestinians need a permit to tell their own story—a reality we refuse to accept.

UNRWA, which has been targeted by the Israeli government and worldwide pro-Israel-at-all-costs propaganda, has been essential to ensuring Palestinians have access to quality education. UNRWA has, for example, provided Palestinian refugees with a network of free schools, which contributed greatly to Gaza’s high literacy rates. I attended UNRWA schools, as did most of my family, friends and neighbors. The education we received enabled us to excel in learning, including in undergraduate and graduate programs. UNRWA’s independence from Israeli-imposed curricula was a key part of its success.

The unproven and malicious accusations by the Israeli government that a few UNRWA staff took part in the October 7 attacks have been levied to undermine their important efforts. But still, European and U.S. financial support for UNRWA was halted until March 2025. And although many countries eventually reversed their decision to defund UNRWA, the United States has not.

THE WAY FORWARD

Israel’s efforts to control — and now destroy — the systems of education in Gaza and throughout Palestine have been devastating. But they will ultimately be unsuccessful.

Palestinians, in the middle of a genocide, have already gathered to try and rebuild the education system and redevelop important systems of teaching and learning. That these efforts have begun — even before the rubble of destroyed schools has been cleared and before the students and staff killed have been properly mourned — demonstrates the Palestinian commitment to education and aspirations for freedom.

A Palestinian woman looks through the debris of a school in Gaza, in Deir al-Balah, on May 17, 2024, that was destroyed by the Israeli military. Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images

Palestinians in Gaza are building on a legacy of 76 years of teaching and learning despite the occupation and the ongoing Nakba. The needs of the education system, however, are huge. All efforts should be coordinated to provide solutions to the challenges facing the education system in Gaza, until it can function independently.

We need a collective effort, everyone must work together. The eventual goal should be building systems in Gaza for Palestinians to have quality education on their own lands and on their own terms. 

But until then, exchange programs, scholarships, online education, visiting professors and other online infrastructure should be developed and encouraged to help the Palestinian education system in Gaza heal — as best it can. This would include initiatives to connect Palestinian students in Gaza with those in the West Bank and elsewhere.

We need a collective effort, everyone must work together. The eventual goal should be building systems in Gaza for Palestinians to have quality education on their own lands and on their own terms.

The historic student encampment movement on campuses across the United States should be seized as an opportunity to support education in Gaza. The decisions of Rutgers University and Northwestern University and other schools in United States and elsewhere to provide scholarships for Palestinian students and for visiting Palestinian academics should be a model for other campuses and student efforts. 

Institutions with educational arms should also build on their legacies in the United States and Palestine to contribute to efforts to support education in Gaza. Allowing the education system to collapse even further is not an option. Intervention must be immediate, comprehensive and based on the needs of local universities, schools and educators in Gaza, which once hosted one of the oldest philosophy schools in the world.

A sign at a student encampment and protest in Cambridge, England, on May 17. The sign refers to Palestinian poet, writer and scholar Refaat Alareer, who was murdered by the Israeli military. Photo by MartinPope/Getty Images

There are about 40,000 Palestinian students who will miss their high school certification exam and 80,000 students who still need to finish their undergraduate studies. They don’t have the luxury of time, conditions and accessibility that students and faculty have elsewhere. For Palestinians in Gaza, rebuilding the infrastructure and education systems is a matter of life and death.

"Along with 34,000 Palestinian deaths, there are zero universities left in Gaza—destruction made possible, ironically, by American universities' financial investment into Israel's corrupted right-wing regime,” Brewington said. “On May 22, debtors and allies in Washington D.C. will descend on the nation's capital to demand a university that liberates instead of represses—and that President Biden use his executive powers to fund education, not genocide."

Ahead of Wednesday’s Fund Education, Not Genocide” march in Washington D.C., Braxton Brewington, who works on communications for the Debt Collective, called for people everywhere in the United States who care about education and who care about the genocide in Gaza to join in unity and resistance.

Along with 34,000 Palestinian deaths, there are zero universities left in Gaza — destruction made possible, ironically, by American universities’ financial investment into Israel’s corrupted right-wing regime,” Brewington said. 

On May 22, debtors and allies in Washington D.C. will descend on the nation’s capital to demand a university that liberates instead of represses,” he said, and that President Biden use his executive powers to fund education, not genocide.”

Genocide depends on the dominance of the oppressors’ narratives. Young people in Gaza, who have been given opportunities to develop writing and storytelling skills thanks to the education system, and thanks to teachers like Alareer, continue to counter this narrative. 

The encampments in the United States and around the world are inspiring and are drawing attention to the destruction of the systems of education in Gaza. 

As for the rest of academic institutions — all around the world — the time to act is now.

In These Times and the Debt Collective are collaborating on a special issue of the magazine. The rally and action referenced in this article will be happening on Wednesday, May 22, at 12 p.m. in Washington D.C. In These Times is included in the event as part of our partnership with the Debt Collective on this special issue. To sign up for the rally, to subscribe to In These Times and. make sure you get a copy of this special issue, and to find out more, visit www​.fund​e​d​u​ca​tion​notgeno​cide​.com.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

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Yousef Aljamal is Gaza Coordinator at the Palestine Activism Program at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Aljamal holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies, is a Palestinian refugee from Gaza and is a senior non-resident scholar at the Hashim Sani Center for Palestine Studies, University of Malaya, Malaysia. He has contributed to a number of books on Palestine, including Gaza Writes Back and Light in Gaza.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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