439 HE students and staff killed, universities hit in war
The Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR) posted a “Summary of violations against Palestinians in the higher education sector” to its Facebook page on Monday 6 November.
The ministry stressed that the figures were “subject to frequent changes and updates” because of ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Jerusalem.
The 439 people killed include 427 students and 12 academics or employees, 85% of them in the Gaza Strip. Nine of the 11 higher education buildings damaged are in Gaza and two in the West Bank.
“The entire educational process was disrupted in 19 higher education institutions in the Gaza Strip,” the ministry said, which has led to 88,000 students being deprived of education. Face-to-face education has been disrupted in all 34 higher education institutions in the West Bank, affecting 138,800 students.
Further, 555 students from the Gaza Strip were unable to enrol in scholarships abroad.
“There are hundreds of detainees and prisoners in the West Bank and thousands wounded in the Gaza Strip from the higher education sector whose numbers cannot be monitored or counted due to field conditions,” reads the statement. The government said the true numbers are “probably much higher”.
In Israel, Science reported last month that “universities are mourning scientists and others killed in the 7 October surprise attack by Hamas militants”. The article continued: “Academic laboratories are emptying as foreign graduate students return home and young academics report for military service.” Some science continues, said Asher Cohen, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but “we cannot maintain full research facilities”.
In the Gaza Strip, scientists were struggling to find safe havens from ongoing attacks by Israel, which declared war on Hamas on 8 October. Professor Marwan Awartani, president of the Palestine Academy for Science and Technology, based in the West Bank, told Science: “The priority isn’t science – the priority is staying alive.”
Damage to universities
In another presentation, MHESR indicated that the higher education buildings that were completely or partially damaged included the Islamic University of Gaza, Al-Azhar University, the North Gaza and Tubas branches of Al-Quds Open University, and buildings of An-Najah National University located at Palestine Technical University Kadoorie. In some cases, “entire buildings were demolished”.
On 7 November, Birzeit University in the West Bank issued a statement saying that Israeli forces had stormed and vandalised the university and confiscated flags and belongings in student residences. “The university denounces this new attack,” it said.
MHESR argues that “the Israeli occupation targeting educational buildings in Palestine through bombing, damage or incursions and tampering with their contents”, constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, relating to the protection of civilians in time of war.
Deaths among students and higher education staff in Palestine have soared during the current war, sparked by an attack by Hamas on Israel in which 1,400 Israelis were killed and hundreds of Israeli and foreign citizens abducted.
In Gaza, during Israel’s retaliation, the death toll has now passed 10,000 with more than 20,000 people injured, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
The BBC reported that Israel has been trying to avoid civilian deaths and injuries by warning Palestinians to clear areas where targeted bombings are about to occur. The BBC spoke in-depth to a dentist who had been phoned by Israel numerous times, during a period in which the Israelis bombed 25 residential blocks in Gaza City. He rushed around urging the local community to evacuate in time, which they did. It was agreed with the Israeli caller that people could seek safety at the University of Palestine.
But there is a long history of attacks on Palestinian schools, universities, students and staff, recorded by various organisations such as Education Under Attack, during the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Describing attacks against Palestine education, Trace – the Track Attacks on Education Data Portal, based on data provided by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, reported:
“Over 420 attacks on, or interferences to education, occurred in Palestine in 2020-2021. Attacks peaked in May 2021, when bombardments affected over 290 kindergartens, schools, and higher education facilities in Gaza. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, demolition or stop-work orders, teargas or other weapons firing at or near schools, military presence near schools, and checkpoint delays affected thousands of students and educators.”
Mutual accusations and allegations
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed that it had bombed the Islamic University of Gaza and released a video of a building being targetted by an air strike. It said in the headline of a press statement: “The IDF struck an important Hamas operational, political and military centre in Gaza – the Islamic University”.
The IDF alleged: “The university was being used as a Hamas training camp for military intelligence operatives, as well as for the development and production of weapons. Hamas used university conferences in order to raise funds for terrorism. The university ‘maintained close ties with the senior leadership of Hamas’.”
For their part, several Palestinian universities have issued a statement accusing Israeli universities of being used for military purposes and called upon the international academic community to boycott the country.
The Palestine Academy for Science and Technology called for a boycott of Israeli higher education by the international academic community, and said in a statement:
“Israeli universities are complicit in these war crimes and genocidal acts against the Palestinian people. They form a central pillar of the apartheid system and the structure of settler colonialism, through their involvement in developing weapons systems, military doctrines, and legal justifications for the collective targeting of Palestinians.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel issued a statement on 6 November, saying:
“We call on students, faculty and alumni to demand that their universities condemn the destruction of Gaza’s two main universities, naming Israel as the perpetrator, and call for an immediate ceasefire. We call on international university networks, including the International Association of Universities, the Mediterranean Universities Union, and the Association of Arab Universities, to mobilise their networks to call for an immediate ceasefire.”
The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) called for higher education institutions to have open dialogue on the conflict, and said: “AAC&U is deeply concerned and saddened by the recent outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza and by the resulting loss of life.”
Academics versus politicians for peace
Asked about the role that academics could play in the current Israel-Palestine conflict to help build peace in future, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor in global thought and comparative philosophies in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in the United Kingdom, told University World News:
“The global academic community, in particular in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia, but also among many colleagues in North America and Australia, have been far ahead of the politicians in their activism for peace and the models that they have proposed to that end.
“Despite concerted efforts by the Israeli right-wing, in particular the allies of Benjamin Netanyahu, to thwart these efforts in Israel, the consensus to bring about a just peace is shared within Israeli academia, as well.”
Adib-Moghaddam contended: “The models and concepts may differ, but they are all in agreement with the tenets enshrined in international law, which require the Israeli state to withdraw from the Occupied Territories and to acknowledge a Palestinian state in accordance with the Oslo peace process and the pre-1967 borders.
“Now, there may be differences in terms of strategy and the details of all of this. But there is no doubt that the majority of academics all over the world support that end-goal.
“It is the politicians who are lagging behind and it is their bad governance that is exacerbating the horrible human plight on all sides.
“We academics have demonstrated what needs to be done for a long time, and we have the acumen, knowledge, culture of dialogue and compromise that is absent from the political stakeholders in the conflict.”