ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Operation 'Cast Lead' shuts universities

Universities in Israel and Gaza have been caught up in the savage conflict now raging in the Palestinian territory. All five universities in Gaza have been shut down while two were closed in southern Israel. "The academic situation in Gaza is collapsing. People's main preoccupation is to get food and stay alive. They feel that everywhere in Gaza is not safe," said one Palestinian professor.

The current hostilities in southern Israel and Gaza have directly affected all universities and colleges in the area, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva and Sapir Academic College in Sderot, which were closed, as well as five universities in Gaza.

While the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is functioning normally, hundreds of its students are serving in the Israel Defence Forces in Operation "Cast Lead" in Gaza, according to Esther Shohami, Dean of Students.

Shohami said that because of this, the university would try to help students in a number of ways, including offering extensions for term papers for those who attend the university in Jerusalem but live in the south near the violence and have gone to be with their families.

"We will be flexible with those students living in the southern areas of the country who ask for extensions of their term papers because they can't concentrate," she said. "Some courses such as science require full attendance in courses or labs [and] we will try to allow them to do more labs."

As well, with the permission of the lecturers, the university will put summaries of lectures on its website for students who cannot attend certain lectures.

A Palestinian professor and co-founder of one of the universities in Gaza who is currently teaching in North America said all five universities in Gaza, with around 30,000 students, were closed. These included the Gaza Women's University, Al-Azhar University, the Islamic University (which suffered a direct hit in the recent shelling), Al-Aqsa University and the Open University of Jerusalem, which has a branch in Gaza.

The professor said that even before the current situation, universities in Gaza did not run regularly but now they had totally stopped. "The academic situation in Gaza is collapsing," he said. "People's main preoccupation is to get food and stay alive. They feel that everywhere in Gaza is not safe."

He explained that the fifth university in Gaza (the Gaza Women's University) was founded because the number of students in Gaza was increasing, since the people did not have the money to go outside Gaza to study. Despite the current "siege" and the collapse of Gaza's education system, the professor said he prayed that "peace will prevail in the Middle East".

Universities in Israel are similarly no strangers to interruptions of studies because of wars or strikes. The wars in Lebanon (1981 and 2006)) and Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, as well as last year's lecturers' and students' strikes, interrupted university semesters. In the latter cases, students were left completing the semester and sitting examinations well into the summer.

At the Hebrew University, Shohami said there would be no compromise on quality or on quantity while the fighting continued but students were given some flexibility. She said the university might allow students to do their exams at a later time than scheduled.

"Once the war is over, we will have tailor-made [solutions] for each student or groups of students." As well, students who might have to take a year again because of the war would probably be eligible for financial help with their tuition fees and would not have to pay for the same courses twice.

Also, students from the south, who live in the Hebrew University dormitories in Jerusalem and who want to host their families in the dorms, can do so, Shohami said.