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A new word emerged from the carnage in Gaza this week: “scholasticide” – the systematic destruction by Israeli forces of centres of education dear to Palestinian society, as the ministry of education was bombed, the infrastructure of teaching destroyed, and schools across the Gaza strip targeted for attack by the air, sea and ground offensives.
“Learn, baby, learn” was a slogan of the black rights movement in America’s ghettoes a generation ago, but it also epitomises the idea of education as the central pillar of Palestinian identity – a traditional premium on schooling steeled by occupation, and something the Israelis “cannot abide… and seek to destroy”, according to Dr Karma Nabulsi, who teaches politics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. “We knew before, and see more clearly now than ever, that Israel is seeking to annihilate an educated Palestine,” she says.
The Palestinians are among the most thoroughly educated people in the world. For decades, Palestinian society – both at home in the West Bank and Gaza, and scattered in the diaspora – has put a singular emphasis on learning. After the expulsions of 1948 and after the 1967 occupation, waves of refugees created an influential Palestinian intelligentsia and a marked presence in the disciplines of medicine and engineering across the Arab world, Europe and the Americas.
“Education is the most important thing – it is part of the family life, part of your identity and part of the rebellion,” says Nabulsi. “Everyone knows this, and in a refugee camp like Gaza, every child knows that in those same schooldesks sat your parents and your grandparents, whose tradition they carry on.”
Schooling and university studies are the fabric of life despite, not because of, circumstances: every university in the occupied territories has been closed down at some point by Israeli forces, many of them regularly. However, the closures and arrests of students (more than 300 at Birzeit university in Ramallah, says Nabulsi) only strengthens the desire to become educated.
In the current offensive, Israel began attacking Gaza’s educational institutions immediately. On only the second and third day of air attacks last week, Israeli planes wreaked severe damage in direct strikes on Gaza’s Islamic University. The main buildings were devastated, destroying administrative records, and, of course, ending studies. The Ministry of Education has been hit twice by direct hits from the air.
The Saturday of the ground invasion was the day on which most students in Gaza sit their end-of-year examinations. In the majority of cases, these had to be abandoned, and it remains unclear whether they can or will be sat again. Other schools were also attacked – most notoriously the UN establishment in the Jabaliya refugee camp where at least 40 people were massacred on Tuesday.
On Sunday, another Israeli air strike destroyed the pinnacle of Palestinian schooling, the elite and private American International School, to which the children of business and other leaders went, among them Fulbright scholars unable to take up their places in the United States because of the Israeli blockade. Ironically, the same school was attacked last year by a group called the Holy Jihad Brigades, and has been repeatedly vandalised for its association with western-style education.
The school was founded in 2000 to offer a “progressive” (and fully co-educational) American-style curriculum, taught in English, from kindergarten to sixth form, and was said by the Israelis to have been the site, or near the site, from which a rocket was fired. A night watchman was killed in the destruction of the building.
The chairman of its board of trustees, Iyad Saraj, says: “This is the most distinguished and advanced school in Gaza, if not in Gaza and the West Bank. I cannot swear there was no rocket fired, but if there was, you don’t destroy a whole school.” He adds: “This is the destruction of civilisation.”
The school has no connection to the US government, Saraj says, and many of the 250 who graduate from it each year go on to US universities. “They are very good, highly educated open-minded students who can really be future leaders of Palestine.”
Young Palestinians playing in Daniel Barenboim’s celebrated East-West Divan Orchestra – which this week again brings Palestinian and Israeli musicians together to play a prestigious concert in Vienna – say that music schools in their communities and refugee camps are “not just educating young people, but helping them understand their identity”, as Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, a violinist based in Nazareth, puts it, adding: “And the Israelis are not necessarily happy with that.”
Ramzi Aburedwan, who runs the Al-Kamandjati classical music school in Ramallah, argues: “What the Israelis are doing is killing the lives of the people. Bring music, and you bring life. The children who played here were suddenly interested in their future”.
In a recent lecture, Nabulsi at St Edmund Hall recalled the tradition of learning in Palestinian history, and the recurrent character of the teacher as an icon in Palestinian literature. “The role and power of education in an occupied society is enormous. Education posits possibilities, opens horizons. Freedom of thought contrasts sharply with the apartheid wall, the shackling checkpoints, the choking prisons,” she said.
This week, following the bombing of schools in Gaza, she says: “The systematic destruction of Palestinian education by Israel has countered that tradition since the occupation of 1967,” citing “the calculated, wholesale looting of the Palestinian Research Centre in Beirut during the 1982 war and the destruction of all those manuscripts and archived history.”
“Now in Gaza,” she says, “we see the policy more clearly than ever – this ‘scholasticide’. The Israelis know nothing about who we really are, while we study and study them. But deep down they know how important education is to the Palestinian tradition and the Palestinian revolution. They cannot abide it and have to destroy it.”