Breaking Analysis | October 30th, 2023
As Israeli bombs rain down, students are begging their professors, “Please, please, come teach us!”
The heat was already suffocating in Gaza City that Saturday morning in June 2011. My colleague and I were preparing to train two dozen Palestinian adults to be fieldworkers in our latest research project on youth and families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We trudged up three flights of stairs to the only space available to rent for this session. The elevator, lights, and air conditioning were not working, and I forget whether it was a two-, four-, or eight-hour day—that is, the amount of electricity Gazans were allowed.
The trainees, mostly professionals eager to augment their incomes and help improve life for their large families, dressed in their best. They focused intently on the lessons, but Clea and I noticed that they were distracted, regularly sneaking peeks at their cell phones. Eventually, we learned that it was the most crucial day of the year for parents. They were checking for text messages that would inform them whether their children had passed the tawjihi, the arduous, 21-day college qualifying exam taken at the end of high school. It measures knowledge of Arabic, English, math, physics, biology, chemistry, computer science, earth science, social science, and religion. This test determines whether kids can attend university, the goal of all parents in Gaza.
Parallel with strengthening the family, education is an urgent priority for Palestinians. Schooling through the 10th grade is compulsory.
Here are some key data on education in Gaza for 2022: These figures are in line with the other Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem:
Literacy rate: 97%
School enrollment: 95%
Lower secondary: 94%
Upper secondary: 68% (79% of girls)
Number of students: 590,000+
Number of teachers: 20,000+
Number enrolled in higher education: 12,500+
Number of universities and colleges: 17
As the messages started coming in, the group begged our indulgence. Few words were spoken over the next quarter hour, but it was easy to understand the reactions. Whole bodies melted in relief. This majority group had just received news that their children had passed. Those who knew each other well hugged and cried. There was a different type of tears in the eyes of some others, downcast men and women, fighting hard to stay composed. Their friends approached and gently whispered expressions of empathy and tried to console them, saying that the son or daughter could try again.
One of the downcast men, Fuad, approached me sometime later.
“You are suffering from severe pain behind your right shoulder, aren’t you?” he said. “I am a physical therapist, and when the training ends, I will take you to my clinic and try to bring you some comfort.” He helped me that afternoon and for the next two days, as well.
After every session, when I thanked Fuad profusely, he said a classic Palestinian phrase, “It is my honor, it is my duty to help.” From hard-won experience already in Gaza, I knew not to offer him any payment; it would have offended him deeply.
The Rising Toll: Death, Displacement, and the Education Crisis
When we calculate the damage wrought by Israel’s accelerating bombardment, we always begin by enumerating deaths, injuries, and damage to infrastructure. More than 8,000 Gazans have been killed and at least 20,000 injured since the Hamas massacres of October 7, according to the Associated Press. Previous reporting by the United Nations indicates that 40 percent of the fatalities have been children and 22 percent women. At least 42 percent of housing units have been destroyed, the UN humanitarian affairs coordinator says.
But focusing on education opens another essential window into the costs being inflicted. At least 206 Gaza school buildings—39 percent—have been damaged, affecting 216,000 students and 8,500 teachers, according to ReliefWeb. An estimated 636,000 students are sheltering in 205 schools.
I am in touch by WhatsApp with many in Gaza. Two of them are educators I have known for 29 years.
Ghassan is vice dean of one of Gaza’s colleges. As a teen in the first intifada (1987–1993) he was thrice imprisoned and tortured for throwing stones at Israeli forces. I once asked him what he most regretted about his involvement, and he said without hesitating: “The delay in my education.” During that uprising, teachers and students kept up the best they could by secreting themselves in the backrooms of family homes during the widespread closures enforced by Israeli authorities. Schools were shuttered virtually all of Ghassan’s senior year of high school, forcing him to delay graduation and sitting for the tawjihi. Once he passed, Ghassan went on immediately to get his bachelor’s in English. After working steadily as a teacher, he spent months and months on applications, and was allowed to leave Gaza to pursue a master’s. Years later he received a PhD in educational leadership.
When Ghassan contacted me recently, he noted that education is the key to a better life, crucial to challenging inequality and ensuring the right to dignity and freedom. “While the current circumstances lay huge obstacles in our way to quality and inclusive education, it is essential to remain hopeful and work toward the restoration and resumption of education,” he continued. “What grieves me, though, is that some students will not be able to pursue their education, and work on conceptions of a better life, because they will be killed by the ongoing Israeli bombardment.”
The other educator, Hammam, also achieved his BA in English in Gaza after the first intifada, as well as his MA and PhD in educational leadership over the next many years. Unlike Ghassan, who thrills in teaching college students, Hammam’s passion has always been to reach younger students. After decades working in smaller schools near Khan Younis, his hometown, Hammam was promoted in September to head one of Gaza City’s largest schools, a 20 minute drive north. This was a huge honor.
Last week, Hammam wrote me about an incident as he tried to catch a breath from hosting 50 refugee women and children from the north:
I was walking in the street and was surprised to see a student from Gaza City. He ran toward me, greeted me warmly, and said, “Professor, we were forced to leave Gaza City, and we now live in that school down the road. Many of us are there. We came only with the clothes we had on. Many students’ homes were bombed, many people were killed. We couldn’t bring our books! Please, please, come teach us!” I cried upon hearing how urgently this child wanted to learn, even in these very difficult times.
During the current onslaught, unlike the intifada, students will not be able to continue their education. Most schools are either damaged or packed with refugees from the north, and nearly 200,000 homes have already been destroyed. Gazan parents—fully consumed with burying their dead, caring for their wounded, and trying to survive—have no mental or emotional space to contemplate education. But its destruction is a severe wound that will persist, even when this immediate horror stops. There is no telling when or where education will resume.
Brian K. Barber, PhD, is professor emeritus, University of Tennessee, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, and past fellow at the New America International Security Program. He specializes in the study of youth in conflict zones. His primary work has been in Palestine, where he and his teams have studied 10,000 youth and families over the past three decades. He is writing a narrative nonfiction tracing the lives of Gazans he has known intimately since 1996. Dr. Barber lives in Washington.