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Palestinians in Gaza strive to study even as Israel’s war destroys their education system

May 13, 2024 at 10:16 am

25-year-old Palestinian English teacher Tariq al-Annabi continues to afford teaching English to children who took refuge with their families at Taha Hussein School after Israeli attacks following the extension of the ‘humanitarian pause’ in Rafah, Gaza on November 29, 2023. [Mustafa Hassona – Anadolu Agency]

Pupils sitting cross-legged on the sand take classes in a tent near Khan Younis in Gaza. Two sisters connect online to a West Bank school from Cairo. A professor in Germany helps Palestinian students link up with European universities.

After watching their schools and universities be closed, damaged or destroyed in more than seven months of Israel’s war against them, Palestinians in Gaza sheltering inside and outside the territory are doing what they can to restart some learning.

“We are receiving students, and we have a very large number of them still waiting,” said Asmaa al-Astal, a volunteer teacher at the tent school near the coast in Al-Mawasi, which opened in late April. Instead of letting children lose a whole year of schooling as they cower from Israeli bombardment, “We will be with them, we will bring them here, and we will teach them,” she said.

The Palestinians fear that the fighting between Israel and resistance groups has inflicted irreparable damage to their education system, which is a rare source of hope and pride in the enclave. The hope is that it will outlast the fighting and recover.

Occupied and besieged Gaza, as well as the occupied West Bank, have internationally high literacy levels.

However, Israel’s blockade of the coastal Palestinian enclave and repeated military offensives have left education fragile and under-resourced. Since the latest offensive began on 7 October last year, schools have been bombed or turned into shelters for displaced people, leaving Gaza’s estimated 625,000 school-aged children unable to attend classes. Moreover, all 12 of Gaza’s higher education institutions have been destroyed or damaged, leaving nearly 90,000 students stranded educationally, and more than 350 teachers and academics have been killed, according to official Palestinian data.

READ: European academics condemn Israel’s destruction of education system in Gaza

“We have lost friends, we have lost doctors, we have lost teaching assistants, we have lost professors, we have lost so many people in this war,” said Israa Azoum, a fourth-year medical student at Gaza City’s Al-Azhar University. Azoum is volunteering at Al-Aqsa Hospital in the town of Deir al-Balah to help stretched staff deal with waves of patients. She doesn’t want to lose her “connection” with science.

“I never feel tired because this is what I love doing,” she explained. “I love medicine, I love working as a doctor, and I don’t want to forget what I have learnt.”

Fahid Al-Hadad is the head of Al-Aqsa Hospital’s emergency department and a lecturer at the faculty of medicine at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG). He said that he hopes to start teaching again, although he lost books and papers accumulated over more than a decade when his home in Gaza City was destroyed by Israel.

Online instruction will be complicated by a weak internet service, but could at least allow students to complete their degrees, he pointed out. The IUG and Al-Azhar campus buildings stand badly damaged and abandoned on neighbouring sites in Gaza City.

“We are ready to give in any way, but much better inside Gaza than outside,” said Hadad. “Because don’t forget that we are doctors and we are working.”

Palestinian children deprived of their right to education attend classes at tent school due the ongoing Israeli offensive in Rafah, Gaza on April 15, 2024 [Anas Zeyad Fteha - Anadolu Agency]

Palestinian children deprived of their right to education attend classes at tent school due the ongoing Israeli offensive in Rafah, Gaza on April 15, 2024 [Anas Zeyad Fteha – Anadolu Agency]

Tens of thousands of Palestinians who crossed from Gaza to Egypt also face challenges. Although living in relative safety, they lack the necessary papers to enrol their children in local schools, so some have signed up for remote learning offered from the West Bank, where Palestinians have limited self-rule under Israeli military occupation. The Palestinian Embassy in Cairo is planning to supervise end-of-year exams for 800 high school students.

Businessman Kamal Al-Batrawi, 46, said that his two school-aged daughters began online schooling after the family arrived in the Egyptian capital five months ago. “They take classes every day, from 8am until 1:30pm, as if they were in a regular school. This is a lifesaving act,” he told Reuters.

In southern Gaza, to where more than a million Palestinians have been displaced by the Israeli occupation forces, UN children’s agency UNICEF has been organising recreational activities like singing and dancing with some basic learning. It is planning to erect 50 tents where 6,000 children will be able to take classes in three daily shifts. “It’s important to do it, but it remains a drop in the ocean,” said Jonathan Crickx, head of communications for UNICEF Palestine.

Wesam Amer, Dean of the Faculty of Communication and Languages at Gaza University, said that although online teaching could be an interim solution, it could not provide the physical or practical learning required for subjects like medicine and engineering. After leaving Gaza for Germany in November, he is advising students on how to match up their courses with options at universities in the West Bank or Europe. “The challenges of the day after the war aren’t only about the infrastructure and the university buildings. It is also about the dozens of academics who have been killed in the war and the tough task trying to make up for them or replace them.”

Those killed include IUG president Sufyan Tayeh, who was killed with his wife and his five children in an Israeli air strike on his sister’s house in December. Tayeh, an award-winning professor of theoretical physics and applied mathematics, had a “great passion” for science, his brother Nabil told Reuters. “Even in the middle of the war, he [Tayeh] was still working on his own research,” he said.

The UN estimates that 72.5 per cent of schools in Gaza will need full reconstruction or major rehabilitation. Mental health and psychosocial support will also be needed for children to “feel safe in going back to a school that might have been bombed,” added UNICEF’s Crickx.

READ: The teacher inspiring the children of Gaza

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