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Israel Has Ruined 76 Percent of Gaza’s Schools in Systematic Attack on Education

Denying Palestinians’ right to education has been central to Israel’s settler-colonial project for eight decades.

Muhammad Al-Khudari, a teacher from Gaza who lost most of his family due to Israeli attacks and had to flee to Rafah, is seen teaching children in Rafah, Gaza on March 8, 2024. Khudari has set up a classroom among tents in al-Barakasat camp, north of Rafah city, for children deprived of their right to education due to the attacks.

Part of the Series

Gaza has become a “graveyard for children.” Israel’s bombing has killed least 12,300 children — and more than 31,000 people total — since October. Thousands more are unaccounted for and are likely to be found under the rubble of their destroyed homes and shelters. In addition to the relentless bombing, Israel has been waging a starvation campaign: While all Gazans are facing food insecurity, 1.17 million Gazans have reached emergency levels of hunger, and half a million are at catastrophic levels.

Against this backdrop of extreme violence, Israel has also been perpetrating a very particular form of violence that has disproportionate and long-term effects on children and youth: “scholasticide,” or the systematic destruction of the entire education system.

The destruction of Gaza’s education system has garnered less attention than has that of the health care system. But the consequences for children, youth and future generations of Palestinians are severe. In late January 2024, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that Israel had destroyed or damaged 378 school buildings (76 percent of the total school buildings in Gaza).

Many of the schools that are still standing have been transformed into displaced persons camps to accommodate some of the 1.9 million Gazans forced to flee their homes. Children who started the new school year with dreams of becoming teachers, nurses or doctors are now sleeping on the floor of their classrooms, with hundreds of people sharing a toilet. Still there’s no safety. Schools serving as shelters are being bombed and besieged, sniped at and blown up. Schools that haven’t been totally destroyed have been emptied of their furniture and textbooks, which were burned in the absence of needed fuel.

Gaza’s higher education system has also been decimated. All 12 universities in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. The almost complete closure of the Gaza Strip has also prevented 555 students from taking up scholarship-funded studies abroad. Even more devasting, Israeli forces have killed 100 Palestinian academics in Gaza since October 7, 2023. Among them were professor Sufian Tayeh, killed with his family on December 2. He was a prominent scientist and the president of the Islamic University of Gaza, the Strip’s leading academic institution.

On December 7, Refaat Alareer, professor of world literature and creative writing at Islamic University, and the editor of Gaza Writes Back, was killed along with six of his family members, with at least one report that he had been informed by the U.S.-backed Israeli forces that he was a target. On February 20, 2024, professor Nasser Abu Al-Nour, dean of the faculty of nursing at the Islamic University in Gaza, was killed along with six of his family members. As with all statistics coming out of Gaza, these numbers severely underestimate the real toll.

In January, in response to the video of Israa University being blown up, a UN special rapporteur posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the deliberate destruction of Gaza’s education system should constitute a distinct and new crime under international law: “educaricide.” In fact, Palestinians have been sounding the alarm about this for some time. Educaricide — or scholasticide — speak to the wholesale and deliberate destruction of Gaza’s education system by the Israeli state. Little wonder then that a group of Palestinian children in Gaza recently asked a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) official why the organization bothered to teach them human rights when these values clearly don’t apply to them.

In the face of this destruction, the overwhelming majority of U.S. government officials have said nothing. Instead, the response of the U.S. government (and many of its allies) to the still unproven Israeli accusation that a small number of UNRWA’s approximately 13,000 employees were involved in the October 7 attacks has been suspension of all aid to the organization. UNRWA is the largest humanitarian organization in Gaza and one of the primary educational providers. In contrast, the U.S. Congress is trying to send Israel another $14 billion in military aid, in spite of the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice that Israel and third parties do everything they can to prevent death, destruction and acts of genocide from happening in Gaza.

Gazan Education in Context

Before October 7, the K-12 education system in Gaza included 625,000 students who attended public, private and UN-run schools and 22,564 teachers. Palestinians are among the most educated populations in the Middle East. In spite of the 17-year siege, frequent Israeli bombings and disruptions to education, Gaza’s students often rank among the top performing students in the Palestinian territories.

Israel had destroyed or damaged 378 school buildings (76 percent of the total school buildings in Gaza).

Statistics tell only part of the story. The significance of education to Palestinians is rooted in their anti-colonial struggle. It was Palestinians who set up the first refugee schools in 1948. By the mid-1960s, almost all Palestinian refugees completed the compulsory cycle of schooling at access rates that were far in advance of the public systems in some of their host states. As the Palestinian national movement gained traction in the 1960s and ‘70s, education emerged as integral to Palestinian nonviolent resistance. In the 1970s, for example, the Palestine Liberation Organization developed a dedicated philosophy of education, mobilized youth to provide literacy classes to first generation refugees, and supported the publication of children’s books designed to provide young Palestinians with a sense of their history and identity. Later, during the First Intifada, popular community-based education initiatives were created to overcome Israel’s prolonged closure of schools. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in 1994, one of its first acts was to assume control of the education system and develop a dedicated Palestinian curriculum. In recent years, Gaza’s educators have been at the forefront of educational innovations in the region. UNRWA’s online learning platform was, for example, developed by teachers in Gaza who sought to continue schooling through the periods of disruptive violence. Subsequently developed into a regionwide platform, these efforts supported continuity of learning for Palestinian refugees in other countries.

Palestinians are not unique in the value they ascribe to education. Refugees, migrants and racially marginalized communities everywhere often refer to the importance of education for a better future. However, the extreme oppression that Palestinians live under — especially those in Gaza, 70 percent of whom are refugees — lends education a particular importance and urgency. Education and knowledge are portable assets that can transcend dispossession, diaspora and statelessness. Education is also a key social and cultural institution — one that simultaneously assures a continuity with the past and an orientation toward a better future. For a population whose history, national identity and rights have been consistently denied, education has a formidable potential. This is precisely why the denial of Palestinians’ right to education has been a persistent feature of Israel’s settler-colonial project over the last eight decades.

Alongside killing, arrests, ethnic cleansing, forced displacement, land appropriation, domicide and the targeting of health and media sectors, Israel’s history of targeting Palestinian education is designed to erase Palestinian presence in the land of historic Palestine. For decades, schools have been bombed, bulldozed and forcibly closed. The Israeli military has arrested and beaten students and shot them in their classrooms. The Kafkaesque restrictions on Palestinians’ right to movement (including checkpoints, earth mounds, the wall and restricted residency laws) also make it difficult, if not impossible, for students to attend school and universities. Palestinian citizens of Israel face large funding inequities, and unrecognized Palestinian communities are denied the right to have their own schools.

These attacks on education extend to accusations leveled against the Palestinian curriculum. Across the West Bank and Gaza, including in UN-administered schools, students learn the curriculum developed by the PA. This curriculum was first developed in the late 1990s by the renowned Palestinian educator and academic Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. Like any curriculum, it offers a shared narrative and projects a collective vision for society. Yet unlike almost any other contemporary curriculum, it is taught in a context of military occupation and settler-colonial dispossession. Consequently, it must contend with the oppressive political context that has shaped the lives of generations of Palestinians.

All 12 universities in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed.

Since the late 1990s, several highly partisan organizations have accused the PA curriculum of promoting hatred and antisemitism. The fact that these accusations have come from extremist polemical organizations whose methods and findings have been called into question time and again has had no impact on U.S. and EU officials who continue to promote these damaging falsehoods. Nor is there any discussion of the ways in which the Israeli curriculum is promoting anti-Palestinian violence and hatred. The result has been sustained and obsessive focus on the content of the PA curriculum by major Western donors and significant pressure on the PA and UNRWA to decontextualize education.

The Right to a Palestinian Education

The famous philosopher John Dewey argued that the proper role of education is to foster cooperation on real world issues of direct importance. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire took this idea further, articulating a pedagogical vision that directly engaged with the source of his students’ oppression. Palestinian educators understand this all too well. As many Palestinian teachers we know have told us, “knowledge is our only weapon.” Perhaps it is this fundamental truth that best explains Israel’s determination to destroy the education system in Gaza, in an attempt to retain its oppressive status quo.

The destruction of the entire system of education in Gaza cannot be counted only in terms of the lives lost and infrastructure destroyed. More than 200 out of 325 cultural sites have been destroyed or severely damaged, including museums, libraries, archeological sites and publishing houses. When this latest round of violence ends in Gaza, there will likely be another infusion of international humanitarian projects that seek to rebuild schools, teach a new generation of educators, and launch trauma-informed programs to address the psychosocial needs of Palestinian children and youth who have grown up entirely under siege and war. However, these programs will only address a fraction of what is needed to challenge the colonial oppression, dispossession and violence that have affected generations of Palestinians.

Palestinian children, youth and educators in Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora need and deserve to learn in safety. But for Palestinians, safety goes hand in hand with contesting the oppression that frames their daily lives and preserving their cultural identity. This can only be achieved through “dangerous” knowledge that challenges the realities of dispossession, colonization and statelessness, and teaches each new generation the historical and cultural wisdom necessary to secure a free and just future.

Protecting the expression of this “dangerous” knowledge in the U.S. is also critical at this historic moment in which academic freedom is also under attack, especially on college and university campuses. Student activism was key to enlightening and changing U.S. public opinion about the horrors of the Vietnam War and apartheid South Africa. Given the outsized role that the U.S. government plays in supporting Israel’s current war on Gaza and its apartheid policies, it is imperative that we in the U.S. fiercely protect academic freedom and spaces for “dangerous” political critique and analysis that is central to education for justice.

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