Gazans strive to study as education system falls apart amid war

Palestinians in the Strip learn in makeshift classrooms, while those in Cairo seek remote alternatives in Europe and the West Bank

File: A woman instructs children on arithmetic multiplication in a classroom at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) at the Shati camp for Palestinian refugees, west of Gaza City, on May 7, 2024. (AFP)
File: A woman instructs children on arithmetic multiplication in a classroom at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) at the Shati camp for Palestinian refugees, west of Gaza City, on May 7, 2024. (AFP)

Pupils sitting cross-legged on the sand take classes in a tent near Khan Younis in Gaza. Two sisters connect online from Cairo to a West Bank school. 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 war, Gazans 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 bombardments, “we will be with them, we will bring them here, and we will teach them,” she said.

Gazans fear the conflict between Israel and Hamas has inflicted damage to their education system, a rare source of hope and pride in the enclave. Throughout the war, Israel has provided evidence that educational institutions have been used to hide terror groups’ weapons and activities, along with mosques and hospitals.

Gaza and the West Bank have internationally high literacy levels, but Israel and Egypt’s blockade of the coastal Palestinian enclave and repeated rounds of conflict left education fragile and under-resourced.

File: Weapons found by IDF troops at a school in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun, May 10, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza when Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, violently seized the territory from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.

Since the war began on October 7, when Hamas-led terrorists rampaged through southern communities, slaughtered 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 252 hostages to Gaza, schools have been bombed or turned into shelters for displaced people, leaving Gaza’s estimated 625,000 school-aged children unable to attend classes.

All 12 of Gaza’s higher education institutions have been destroyed or damaged, leaving nearly 90,000 students stranded, and more than 350 teachers and academics have been killed, according to Hamas-provided official data, which cannot be independently verified.

“We lost friends, we lost doctors, we lost teaching assistants, we lost professors, we lost so many things 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 el-Balah to help stretched staff deal with waves of patients, but also because she doesn’t want to “lose the connection with science.”

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

Weapons found by troops of the Givati Brigade in the Islamic University in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, January 9, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

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

Online instruction will be complicated by weak internet, but could at least allow students to complete their degrees, he said. The buildings of IUG and Al Azhar stand badly damaged and abandoned on neighboring sites in Gaza City.

At both those universities, the Israel Defense Forces said it uncovered weapons used by Hamas when troops raided their campuses.

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

‘Lifesaving act’

Tens of thousands of Gazans who crossed to Egypt also face challenges. Though living in relative safety, they lack the papers to enroll their children in schools, so some have signed up for remote learning offered in the West Bank, where Palestinians have limited self-rule.

The Palestinian embassy in Cairo is planning to supervise end-of-year exams for 800 high school students.

Kamal al-Batrawi, a 46-year-old businessman, said 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 8 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., as if they were in a regular school. This is a lifesaving act,” he said.

A UN-run school is deserted in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 12, 2024. (AFP)

In southern Gaza, where more than a million people were displaced, the UN children’s agency UNICEF has been organizing recreational activities like singing and dancing with some basic learning. It is planning to create 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, university buildings. It is about the dozens of academics who have been killed in the war and the tough task of trying to make up for them or replace them,” he said.

Those killed include IUG president Sufyan Tayeh, who died with his wife and all his five children in a strike on his sister’s house in December.

Displaced Palestinian children attend a class recently opened in a school used as a temporary shelter, in Beit Lahya in the northern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2024. (AFP)

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 percent 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,” Crickx said.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 35,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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