For Gaza’s Besieged Universities, Reform Is Low on the Agenda

The three Israeli wars that have been launched on the Gaza Strip since 2008 have had both a physical and psychological impact on Gaza’s universities.

The land, sea and air blockade that has been in place since 2006 has also had negative consequences for Gaza’s universities.

A quality higher education in this context is perceived as a luxury, not as a right, especially as universities always seem to be working under emergency conditions.

Those responsible for improving the system and services at Gaza’s universities are often viewed as either heroes or victims—either trying to steer the education ship from sinking, even though they might not be specialists, or suffering mismanagement in the collapsing political context in which higher-education institutions operate.

These two scenarios downplay the value of scientific inquiry, undermine institutional accountability to the Palestinian public, and demotivate people from calling for reform to improve their university experiences and prospects.

Decades of Occupation

The Gaza Strip region has witnessed successive patterns of occupation over the centuries. It was controlled by the Ottomans from 1516 to 1917, by the British from 1917 to 1948, by the Egyptians from 1948 to 1967, and by the Israeli occupation since 1967. Every new historical and political era has promoted new educational agendas and challenges.

Eventually, the establishment of Palestinian universities was necessary as a source of empowerment for Palestinian youth, seeking to build a generation of Palestinians who were academically and professionally qualified while advancing the cause of Palestinian unity.

In fact, Palestinians are reported to have higher educational attainment than students of other Arab countries.

Universities can also act as a place where critical scholarship and dialogue are encouraged. Hence, the quality of higher education at Gaza’s universities is either crucial in contributing to the better future which Palestinians hope to create or a barrier to it.

A Contradiction

During the course of my Ph.D. research, which focused on the higher-education experience under occupation, lecturers and students in the Gaza Strip explained why improving higher education was not a priority for them.

One lecturer, anonymized as “Mr. Abdel Rahman UB,” summed it up by saying, “We have enough trouble inside the Gaza Strip [such as frequent wars and electricity cuts], but in addition to that, there is the occupation’s expansion into the West Bank. And then there is the issue of whom we can confront to improve the situation. The university administration? This would result in strikes and the suspension of studies, which will reflect negatively on students’ level of scientific achievement.”

Students also seemed grateful for whatever higher-education opportunities they could get in Gaza. The majority were convinced that any educational problems at their universities were the “natural” result of the Israeli occupation, not something that they should blame the Ministry of Education and Higher Education or their university administration for. Compared with the other political, economic and social problems that they face on a daily basis, any complaints about the quality of their higher-education experience can seem trivial.

A damaged building in Gaza after Israeli airstrikes in 2013 (Photo: United Nations).

Reality Check for Universities

The efforts of Gaza’s universities to sustain the educational process in very challenging circumstances of occupation are commendable. Nonetheless, as much as one can blame the economic, political and social conditions for negatively affecting the education sector, problems such as unemployment in Gaza also seem linked to deficiencies in the education sector itself. Researchers have noted that there is a mismatch between graduates’ overall abilities and the demands of the labor market—a problem seen in many parts of the world. (See a related article, “Global Education Challenges: The Arab World Is Not Alone.”)

In addition, people I talked to also raised concerns about the fields of study promoted by Gaza’s universities, and about the effects of political divisions, corruption and incompetence.

Internal divisions in Palestine have intensified the isolation of, and sanctions on, the Gaza Strip, creating further economic and educational challenges. For instance, the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has established its own Ministry of Education to which all educational institutions in Gaza are accountable. In terms of funding and program accreditation, however, Gaza’s universities remain linked to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education.

Moreover, the 2007 takeover by Hamas in Gaza resulted in a large number of school teachers and administrators going on strike in response to a call by the Palestinian Authority, which paid their wages. Hamas consequently needed to fill their positions with new teachers who had limited or no experience. There is hardly any research on the impact on the schools of this disruption.

Lecturers’ and Students’ Perspectives

From my interviews with lecturers and students at two of Gaza’s universities, it emerged that many believe higher education also suffers from practices of “wasta” (nepotism), which is often motivated by kinship, favoritism and factional biases. This was mentioned in relation to jobs, grants and scholarship appointments.

Students I interviewed also mentioned other negative characteristics of the higher-education experience in Gaza, pointing to traditional teaching methods, discriminatory gender assumptions, bureaucracy, and the direct and indirect silencing of student voices.

However, students did not protest generally about their basic rights. They were more likely to protest about minor issues or increases in tuition which they could not afford given the deteriorating economic conditions in Gaza.

This attitude is mirrored in the wider society: Students’ higher-education experience reflects not only the past in which Palestinian education was created as an amalgam of other occupying and Western cultures, but also the present state of Gaza society. It also has the power to shape the future.

Given all this, it is understandable why higher-education reform in Gaza is never a priority. However, Gaza’s universities are more potent places for education than the schools. This is because in the schools, students study in a system which is overly restricted, not only inside schools, but also at home. Moreover, school students tend to come from the same neighborhood. But universities attract students from different areas of the Gaza Strip and act as a space for academic dialogue and exchange in the context of siege.

More Accountability Is Needed

Young people in Gaza should participate actively in shaping their higher-education experience and institutions should be democratized and held accountable. The lack of accountability puts the future that Palestinians strive toward—a Palestine free of occupation—into question. A double-edged reform is needed in which the deficiencies and weaknesses of the Palestinian community itself are called to account.

All of this lies in the shadow of the Israeli occupation, which is the main obstacle to development and prosperity. Recent months have seen increased tension on the Gaza-Israeli border, where the “Great March of Return” demonstrations began on March 30, 2018. The continuing protests in the year since then have resulted in the killing of more than 200 Palestinians and the wounding of thousands more. It appears that higher-education reform is unlikely to be on the agenda.

Mona Jebril is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, where she earned her Ph.D. in education in 2017. She earned a master’s degree at the University of Oxford and worked as a teacher and trainer at schools and universities in the Gaza Strip. She is also a co-founder of two centers and a scholarship program in Gaza. Her Ph.D. research explored the past and present higher-education experience in Gaza, and how this experience may be evolving in the shifting socio-political context in the Arab world. Her current research at Cambridge  focuses on the political economy of health in Palestine and other conflict-affected areas.


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