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A Grim Anniversary for Palestinian Universities

More than a year after the 51-day war last summer between Israel and Palestine, Palestinian universities are still suffering from the damage, and professors and students are struggling to cope.

“I was not able to go back to my university last year,” said Mohamed Yahia, who had been studying English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza. “Our house in Shuja’iyya was destroyed completely and we moved to live with some of our relatives. I had to find a work to support my family.”

Yahia is now working in a carpentry shop. He is not sure if he will be able to go back to his classes next month, as he is worried about a sibling who was hit by a shell during the war and had to have his leg amputated. “I may wait until the second term,” he said. “We still need more money to complete the treatment of my younger brother.”

Universities have cut professors’ salaries in half and asked them to share offices. Administrators have told professors to lower their expectations for course materials, visiting lecturers and instruction time. The same electricity shortages that prevent clean water from reaching homes also often cut classes short or prevent students from completing their homework on time.

An Israeli blockade is preventing reconstruction materials from entering Gaza. Israel says that Hamas would use steel, concrete and other resources to build tunnels and bunkers for military operations.

“I lost my house, laptop and library in the war,” said a journalism professor at Al-Aqsa University, Majed Turban. The blockade, he said, has prevented him from piecing his life and work back together.

“We have asked for new media equipment, like cameras, laptops and tripods,” said Turban. “But we’ve got nothing because of the current blockade that creates obstacles to importing this equipment.”

During the war, Israel launched thousands of air strikes on Gaza, while Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel. The U.N.’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found in a March report that 2314 Palestinians and 87 Israelis died in the 2014 conflicts. An estimated 100,000 Gaza residents are still homeless in the wake of the fighting, according to the Association of International Development Agency.

Three Palestinian universities were directly hit by airstrikes, while eight suffered collateral damage, according to a U.N. independent commission. (Secondary and primary education were also affected. “Gaza’s education sector was already overstretched prior to the hostilities—with a shortage of 200 schools in 2014, and almost 80 per cent of school classes running double shifts,” according to the report. “The destruction of and damage to 209 schools as a result of the conflict exacerbated these deficits.” See the related article: Educational Toll of Gaza War: At Least 3 Universities, 148 Schools.)

Much of the damage to universities has not been repaired, and classes have not gotten back to normal. “After the war, my lectures have been missing many students,” said Husam Ayesh, a journalism professor and external relations coordinator at the Islamic University. “When I asked some of the students about missing classes, they responded, ‘We moved to live with our relatives after we lost our houses,’” he said.

The war has also left university finances in ruins. The universities have had to curb scholarships and increase tuition to pay bills. Most students can’t get jobs or find other income to pay the increases.

“The fees for the study of medicine increase every year,” said Rajai Ahmed, a medical student at Al-Azhar University. “In 2013, each credit hour was 70 Jordanian dinars ($100). In 2014, it became 90 dinars ($127).  Who knows what it will be in the next coming years? My expense for every semester is about 1,400 dinars ($1,970).”

Some universities are offering loans to make up the difference, but it’s still hard for students to get the money to pay their fees. “I was a first-year student when I faced a tough economic situation that forced me to leave school and work as a [house] painter,” said Loay Azez, an Arabic student at Al-Aqsa University.  “My father couldn’t help me. I decided to work and to pay for my fees.”

A World Bank report in May on the Gaza economy found that its per capita income is 31 percent lower than it was 20 years ago, and the unemployment rate is 43 percent—probably the highest in the world. Youth unemployment is 60 percent.

Widespread joblessness leaves many Palestinian students with dismal prospects if they manage to finish their course of study. “I’m supposed to graduate this semester,” said Khaled Shehab, who studied management at the Islamic University, and was interviewed before he did, in fact, graduate. In the summer he worked to pay his tuition. “I work in building construction from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. for 30 shekels ($8) a day.”

The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip began in 2007, when Hamas won local elections and assumed control of the territory after a conflict with Fatah, the political group that controls the West Bank. The blockade also prevents Israel from releasing funding designated for higher education in the Palestinian territories.

“We have been working for years in harsh conditions,” said Haithm Aayesh, the dean of the Palestine Technical College, a vocational and technical college in Deir al-Balah. “The blockade prevents us from developing our curricula, colleges and our research. All technical education needs significant resources to grow.”

The blockade also prevents professors from meeting their colleagues in other countries. “I have been invited to about 12 international conferences,” said Turban . “But since the Egyptian and the Israeli borders are closed, I cannot guarantee that if I leave Gaza I can come back.”

Now the new academic year is knocking on the door, and academic preparations are in full swing.“Our classes are ready to welcome new and old students,” said Ali al-Khatib, vice president for academic affairs at University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza. He said the university has new grants for outstanding students in high school this year and renewal grants for existing students who were affected by the war. The university has also reduced the required course load to encourage students to resume their studies.

“Nothing should stop us or our students,” he said. “We are working hard to have normal classrooms like any all other ones all over the world.”
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