By Basri Saleh
Until October 7, despite the prolonged Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip, its education system preserved the essential features that are integral at all levels of the Palestinian national education system. Schools in Gaza generally adhere to the fundamental principles and components of the Palestinian school system. Moreover, the Ministry of Education has maintained close coordination with the education administration affiliated with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza. Likewise, higher education institutions in Gaza adhere to the national law of higher education and to the governance structure of higher education in Palestine. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has fulfilled its obligations consistently and steadfastly, overseeing and supporting Gaza’s higher education institutions and ensuring adherence to the national standards that are applied to all Palestinian higher education institutions (similar to those in the West Bank). It continues to ensure the active participation of professionals from Gaza in the governance of the higher education and scientific research system at national level. Furthermore, the ministry is unwavering in its commitment to providing financial and technical support to higher education institutions in Gaza and to students within the confines of available resources. Moreover, the government has been keen on actively engaging education specialists from Gaza in the educational development process at the national level for both general and higher education.
Despite the intricate challenges that the Gaza Strip has faced, exacerbated by the Israeli blockade that has lasted almost two decades, the educational landscape exhibited resilience prior to the ongoing Israeli genocidal war on Gaza. This resilience was underscored by robust enrollment rates across both public schools and institutions of higher education. According to education statistics for the academic year 2022/2023, the overall student enrollment rate in Gaza’s school at the compulsory basic level (grades 1 to 10) reached 95.2 percent, closely aligning with the national enrollment rate of 96 percent in Palestinian schools.i It is also worth noting that considerable investments were made by successive Palestinian governments, while contributions from UNRWA and the private sector in developing the educational infrastructure in Gaza have been substantial.ii
The available reports indicate the solid situation of educational institutions in the Gaza Strip prior to the ongoing war. They reflect advancements in infrastructure, evident in the increasing number of schools, the state of higher education institutions, and high student enrollment rates in these institutions.
Similarly, the percentage of students enrolled in higher education programs in the Gaza Strip for the academic year 2022/2023 reached 44.3 percent of the total population aged 18 to 24 years, according Ministry of Higher Education statistics. This percentage is closely aligned with the national rate of higher education enrollment, which reached 46 percent during the same time period and for the same age group.iii It also represents a comparatively high percentage, as indicated by a World Bank report, when compared to the Arab region and the broader region.iv The number of students enrolled in higher education institutions in the academic year 2022/2023 thus reached 88,000, constituting approximately 5 percent of the total population in the Gaza Strip. They were distributed across 19 higher education institutions, including 7 universities and 12 colleges.
Furthermore, indicators underscore qualitative improvements in the education sector. Regional and international rankings of universities have highlighted the advanced levels achieved by some universities in Gaza. For instance, the Islamic University has attained a distinguished position among the top 100 Arab universities in the Arab University Ranking 2022 provided by Times Higher Education ranking.v Moreover, the prestigious Dutch publishing company Elsevier acknowledged the high quality of the academic research published in Al-Isra University’s Journal of Applied Science by indexing it in its Scopus database.vi This underscores the positive achievements that resulted from the substantial investments that were made in the university’s infrastructure and its academic, scientific, and human resources. Furthermore, university students in Gaza have made substantial contributions to their community, whether by aiding in needs assessment and reconstruction efforts or by “actively participa[ting] in community outreach programs, health promotion initiatives, and public health campaigns.”vii
Today (January 29, 2024), more than 115 days into the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, most of these achievements seem to have been swept away. The direct targeting of educational institutions in Gaza continues to be a defining feature of this war, as evidenced by the extensive and ongoing destruction inflicted by the Israeli war machine on these institutions. Live broadcasts show this devastation and can be viewed by whoever is willing to search for media that are willing to cover the destruction.viii The escalating numbers of casualties killed and wounded include a high percentage of school children and university students as well as school teachers and academics of higher education institutions, painting a grim picture.ix
The unprecedented damage inflicted on the education sector in the Gaza Strip by the ongoing war can be summarized by the following four points:
Children, students, and educational staff at all levels of education have been deliberately targeted, as is evident in the statistics released by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics on January 24, 2024. According to data released by the Ministry of Health and the UN via OCHA, the number of children killed in the Gaza Strip has reached 12,345. Additionally, 230 school staff have been killed. Among universities staff, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor has reported that 94 individuals were killed, including many academics holding the rank of professorship in various scientific disciplines.x Some of them were internationally recognized for their scientific and research contributions. Furthermore, killed university students may exceed 1,000, with thousands more reported as injured or missing.
Educational infrastructure has been directly targeted. The deliberate assault on the educational system’s infrastructure through bombing, invasion, and the detonation of buildings and their contents, along with the surrounding educational environment, has led to extensive destruction. Reports from both local and international sources as of January 24, 2024, indicate, “Ninety percent of Palestinian Authority schools have been subject to direct or indirect damage. About 29 percent of school buildings are out of service after being demolished or severely damaged.”xi This estimation aligns with statements issued by the Palestinian ministries of education and higher education and UNICEF that emphasize the widespread destruction caused by Israel military shelling of schools and higher education institutions. The live broadcasts of the demolition of the buildings of Al-Isra University and the images of destruction at the Islamic University and Al-Azhar University, (the two major universities in Gaza), illustrate the magnitude of this destruction and its consequential impact.xii
The ongoing conflict has brought all educational activities to a standstill, affecting 625,000 students at school and kindergarten levels, as reported by the Ministry of Education.xiii Furthermore, the 88,000 students pursuing a higher education have faced a disruption in their academic endeavors. This prolonged hiatus has resulted in the loss of half of the current academic year, raising concerns about a looming educational crisis if the war continues. It poses the threat of an educational gap between students in Gaza and those in the West Bank, as well as with their peers in the Arab and international context.
The ongoing war on the Gaza Strip intensifies the preexisting health crisis caused by the siege and exacerbates psychological and social suffering due to the profound losses, destruction, and displacement it inflicts. The contours of chronic crises on psychological and social fronts in Gaza are evident and escalating. The approximately 15,000 Gazan students currently enrolled in Arab and foreign universities have found the communication with their families cut off since the beginning of the conflict, replacing the vital support system for their educational, academic, and psychological stability with anguish and anxiety over their wellbeing and lives.
In the ongoing state of war, a set of considerations must be noted when discussing Gaza’s education sector and amid ongoing attempts to plan for the day after the war: Firstly, given that the right to life takes precedence over all other rights, it must remain a top priority to advocate for and persevere in protecting children and students during and after the war. An immediate halt to the Israeli army’s targeting of students and their families is necessary. International campaigns are urgently necessary and must focus on the immediate cessation of the killing and targeting of children, students, and their families. Additionally, it is crucial that healthcare must be provided promptly to the injured among them. Since the beginning of the war, it has been evident that the international humanitarian institutions have not achieved any notable progress in this regard. The international community’s continuing inability to make strides in protecting children’s rights to life, health, and an education serves as an indicator of systemic shortcomings and of the collective international failure to enforce treaties and international agreements in this field.
Secondly, the international community must demand the cessation of the targeting of educational and academic institutions and affirm their status as safe zones invulnerable from harm or attacks, in accordance with international treaties and convention. It is a cornerstone of jus in bello that civilian structures are protected, which includes education facilities.
Thirdly, an intensive and comprehensive program must be implemented that provides urgently needed psychological and social care for students and their families, aiming to empower them and restore hope despite the widespread death and extensive destruction. The entry of specialized institutions, social volunteers, and psychologists into the Gaza Strip must be facilitated immediately, while encouraging their collaboration with local counterparts is a top priority. This step will significantly contribute to the desired recovery post-war.
Fourthly, the Gaza Strip must be reconnected to internet services, and telecommunication and e- services must be maintained to enable Gazan school and university students to utilize national services and access educational content. It is extremely important in the short term to provide a temporary solution by reconnecting students in the Gaza Strip with national and international educational resources until their schools and universities are back to functioning.
Lastly, we must ensure that a comprehensive national program is developed and implemented that assesses in detail the war’s impact on education and manages and guides the various stages of the journey back to effective and high-quality education at all levels. In this regard, concerted efforts within a national partnership framework between the government, UNRWA, civil society institutions, and the private sector in collaboration with international supporters, are of paramount importance to achieve the urgently needed rapid success in saving education in the Gaza Strip.
i Palestinian Ministry of Education, “Annual report, 2023”; and “State of Palestine: Education and Adolescents,” UNICEF, no date.
ii “$20 Million for the First Phase of Long-Term Investment in Palestinian Education Sector,” World Bank, March 28, 2022; see also “UN Constructing Green Schools in Gaza,” VOA News Middle East, December 5, 2011; and “Investing in Education and Building Resilience,” Education Above All, 2014.
iii Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Tertiary Education Management Information System, 2023; see also “Palestine: School Enrollment, Tertiary (% Gross),” Trading Economics, February 2024.
iv World Bank, “School Enrollment, Tertiary (% Gross), Middle East and North Africa,” UNESCO Institute of Statistics.
v Times of Education, Arab University Rankings, 2022 (page 3).
vi “Israa University Journal Is Indexed in the International ‘Scopus’ Database,” Al-Israa, May 18, 2022.
vii Gaza University Profile, no date, currently no longer available due to destruction.
viii “Destruction of the main building of Al-Isra University, south of Gaza City,” Facebook, January 17, 2024;
ix “Children Suffer as Education Under Attack in the West Bank and Gaza,” Action Against Hunger, January 31, 2024; UNICEF in the State of Palestine, “Escalation: Humanitarian Situation Report No.16,” January 27, 2024; and “Current Hostilities in Gaza and Israel: Reported Impact since October 7, 2023,” OCHA.
x “How Israel has destroyed Gaza’s schools and universities,” Aljazeera, January 24, 2024, and “Israel kills dozens of academics, destroys every university in the Gaza Strip,” Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, January 20, 2024.
xii See “Israel blows up another university in Gaza,” Middle East Monitor, January 18, 2024; and “Israeli airstrikes target Gaza’s Al-Azhar University,” Middle East Monitor, November 6, 2023.
xiii “How Israel has destroyed Gaza’s schools and universities,” Aljazeera, January 24, 2024.