Gaza’s Universities Are Gone, What’s Next For Science Education?

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All of the Gaza Strip’s universities have been damaged by the war, and most are destroyed.

Since Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip started in October 2023, all of Gaza’s universities and hundreds of its primary and secondary schools have been damaged, most destroyed.

Gaza’s roughly 88,000 college students have lost a full year of classes. But academics inside the territory and outside it are trying to keep education going until the war ends and academic institutions can be rebuilt.

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Physical Destruction And Brain Drain

When Hamas attacked Israel in October 2023, the organization killed an estimated 1,200 people and took around 250 more people hostage, about half of whom remain in captivity.

The World Bank estimates that by January, the ensuing war had done $341 million worth of damage to schools and university buildings.

At least 1.7 million people have been displaced within Gaza, and tens of thousands killed.

About 80,000 people have crossed into Egypt, and many more want to get out of Gaza.

They include Yahia Saqer, who was a master’s student in data science at the Islamic University of Gaza.

“It’s really frustrating and depressing to transition from being someone who pursues dreams to benefit their country, to someone whose only ambition is to meet their daily needs of food and water,” Saqer writes in a text message to C&EN.

While in Rafah in late April, Saqer was applying for international programs, hoping to continue his education in Egypt. But without access to transcripts or degrees, he says, such applications are very difficult.

John Gardiner, an organic chemist at the University of Manchester, says that one of two former students of his who had become professors in Gaza is now just trying to get a job—any job—abroad and get out.

The damage to education, Gardiner says, is “not just a physical destruction. There’s an element of personnel destruction in terms of driving them out of the country.”

Since Israel began an offensive in Rafah in early May, it has not been possible for people to leave the Gaza Strip legally.

Displaced Palestinians within and outside the Gaza Strip have found ways to continue education, including makeshift schools and live streamed lectures.

Rescuing What Can Be Rescued

A coalition of West Bank universities, coordinated by the Ministry of Education in Ramallah, is offering tuition-free enrollment to online courses to students in the Gaza Strip.

Some courses are taught by professors affiliated with Gazan universities. Thousands of students—many of them refugees in Egypt, where internet access and personal safety are more reliable—have enrolled in hundreds of these classes.

Yousef Najajreh, a medicinal chemist at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, calls the initiative “a way to compensate or rescue whatever could be rescued for the Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip.”

Another group of universities in the West Bank and Jordan aim to set up access to final exams, allowing displaced students who were close to finishing their studies to complete their degrees.

There are complications, says Fabio Carbone, the University of Northampton–based organizer of Academics4Gaza, which connects students inside Gaza to academics abroad for one-to-one tutoring.

No university in the West Bank is equipped to absorb tens of thousands of new students online, and differences between curricula complicate help from other countries.

More importantly, although they appreciate the tutoring sessions, students in Gaza are in near-constant danger from the war and lack basic necessities.

Carbone’s phone buzzes constantly with pleas from students for material aid and notes from tutors concerned about students who have dropped out of touch.

Sultan Barakat, a professor of conflict and reconstruction at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar and an honorary professor at the University of York, says current efforts pale in the face of the need.

“This is all temporary arrangements,” he says.

“A small number of people can benefit. We need . . . to come together to think what else can happen next.”

Education And The Future

The United Nations says that after peace is established, reconstruction of Gaza’s cities will take years and billions of dollars.

Ahmad Amro, Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Al-Quds University, says, “According to the reports, if the war stopped today, we’d need at least 3 years to rebuild universities in Gaza.”

He and other academics in the West Bank and from around the world are deep in discussions about how to serve students sustainably in the meantime.

“We’re very concerned about young men and women with nothing to do,” Barakat says.

“The social impact of this is going to be immense. . . . The ability to recruit people for extreme groups is so easy now.”

Decades ago, Najajreh had been a chemistry major at Bethlehem University when it was closed after a deadly clash between soldiers and student protesters.

After the first intifada began in 1987, the closure stretched to 5 years. “I was really desperate,” he said. “I had two alternatives back then: either to join violently or actively the resistance, or to keep myself all the time busy.”

Najajreh says that many of his classmates never returned to school. He doesn’t want to see that happen to students in Gaza, where disruption has been more profound.

“There should be a Marshall Plan for higher education, especially in science education in Palestine,” he says, referring to the US act that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War.

“If anyone thinks that without academia you can build, or without education you can have any future, he’s mistaken.”

A recent report from the International Science Council notes that there are no guidelines for rebuilding science after an armed conflict or disaster.

Amani Ahmed, an administrator involved in international partnership building at the Islamic University of Gaza, says that because it will take years for labs to be rebuilt, students will need to go abroad to learn science.

“If we don’t have strong practical training in these disciplines, we will not have strong engineers. We will not have strong medical doctors. We will not have strong nursing.”

Although institutions in Gaza will have to rely on international aid, Barakat says, “We need to ensure that Gazan teaching staff remain at the center of any effort to restore higher education.”

Barakat and colleagues are planning a conference on reconstruction for this October, hoping to break Gaza’s cycle of destruction and rebuilding.

“We keep going back to where we started,” he says. “So we’re now trying to see how best to come up with a system that is genuinely resilient.”

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