“If I die, you must live to tell my story”. The obliteration of Gaza’s universities

"If I die, you must live to tell my story."

by Ignasi Bernat and Roser Rodríguez

The televised genocide we have been witnessing since last October is part of a long process of Israeli settlement colonialism against the Palestinian people. European universities, however, generally remain silent, unable to name what we are witnessing. The brutal level of violence unleashed by the State of Israel forces us to consider the immediate and long-term objectives of this intervention. The intensity of this aggression has particularly targeted the Palestinian civilian population, with more than 25,000 dead and over 60,000 injured. More than 85% of the civilian population has been displaced. Yet, the violence has been directed specifically against civilian facilities such as schools, universities, hospitals, desalination plants, residential buildings, UN workers, journalists, and more. The total destruction of the Gaza Strip seeking not only the claimed disappearance of Hamas but seeks to make it impossible for the Palestinian population to continue living in their own territory, compelling them to accept voluntary expulsion.

The destruction of the Palestinian education system, especially higher education, plays a crucial role in this policy of population expulsion. The silence of public universities speaks volumes about their neglect of functions as a fundamental institution for criticism and freedom of expression. University institutions and higher education must be protected and recognized as sanctuaries free from colonial violence. They support the Palestinians’ ability to create their collective memory and write their history. Every Gazan university has been completely or partially destroyed since October, including the Islamic University of Gaza, Al-Azhar, Al_Aqsa, Al-Quds Open University, Palestine University, Al-Israa University, Gaza University, Palestinian Technical College, Palestinian Nursing College, and Arab College of Social Sciences. They have been targeted with drones, tanks, explosives, direct and indirect airstrikes. 90,000 students in Gaza can no longer access university education, with 60% of schools and all universities in Gaza partially or totally destroyed, erasing educational opportunities for children and young people.

The Islamic University of Gaza after an Israeli bombing attack

In the West Bank, the Israeli army regularly conducts raids, with numerous incidents in recent times. Since 1982, over 2,000 students from Birzeit University in the West Bank have been imprisoned, and more than 30 students from that university have been killed under Israeli occupation. During this phase of the conflict Israel is escalating its violence against universities throughout Palestine. On January 15th, the Israeli army raided the campus of An-Najah University in occupied West Bank, arresting 25 students. Attacks on students, professors, and education institutions are happening across all Palestinian territories.

This violence against educational institutions comprises three distinct but interconnected phenomena: the destruction of educational infrastructure in Gaza, the assault and siege of universities in Gaza and the West Bank, and the harassment and attacks on professors and students supporting the Palestinian cause in the Israeli university system.  In Spain, this phenomenon has been termed “scholasticide.”

The systematic destruction of Palestinian universities not only includes buildings and facilities but also targets university professors, with 94 professors killed. Many of them have been specifically targeted for attacks. For example, Dr. Said Al-Zubda, the president of the Gaza College of Applied Sciences, was killed on December 31st, along with his family, in an Israeli airstrike. Renowned psychology professor Dr. Fadel Abu Hein, specializing in mental health, was killed on January 23rd by Israeli army snipers. Another notable case is the assassination of poet and university professor Refaat Alarer on December 7th, along with his family, in a drone airstrike. Professor Alarer, known as the ‘voice of Gaza,’ wrote a poem titled “If I die, you must live to tell my story,” which should deeply resonate with our conscience.

Poet and university professor Refaat Alarer, killed by an Israeli drone strike on December 7th 2023

Such a level of genocidal violence would not be possible without the complicit silence of many institutions. Therefore, it should also alarm us that our public universities have remained silent for over three months while witnessing the destruction of Palestinian universities and the killing of our Palestinian counterparts. This complicit silence is evidence of the academic freedom crisis we are experiencing, unprecedented in the last forty years. The fear of speaking out seems to pervade most departments and faculties, fearing the consequences of opposing universities aligned with European and Western institutions.

Its true that most European universities suffers from all the ills of neoliberal academia, such as an obsession with metrics, rankings, accreditations, papers, positions, and funding, compounded by endemic issues like departmental clientelism and nepotism, abuses of power, and decades of job insecurity. Yet if we lose our ability to intervene in public life and critically debate in classrooms about colonialism, North-South inequalities, international law, war crimes, and human rights violations due to fear of censorship and cancellation, it will be the death of the university.  Even if our chairs, department heads, deans, and rectors have the power to deny us the necessary funding for our research and positions to retain our jobs, we must now break the silence in the face of this genocide as academics and workers in an institution that must guarantee criticism, thought, and freedom of expression.

Ignasi Bernat is an Honorary Senior Researcher at the CCCCJ.  This ia a translation of an article from El Diaro.