Israel’s occupation is deliberate and intentionally extensive. It is designed to inflict maximum damage on Palestinians while shirking as much responsibility as possible.
In the Gaza Strip, the ongoing siege has ruined the lives of tens of thousands of families and has effectively crushed the dreams of so many bright Palestinian students. The siege was created in 2006 to deprive Palestinians not just of food, water, and daily-use products but of safety, opportunity, and a window to the outside world as well.
This weekend, students unable to leave Gaza to pursue further education staged a protest and threw mock diplomas into the sea as a symbol of their achingly lost dreams.
Israel has historically feared the Palestinian mind. The exaggerated stories of Palestinian parents walking miles over rocks and in between tanks, barefoot and carrying recycled notebooks bearing the scuffed graphite strokes of last year’s notes, are truer than we are inclined to believe. Education is emphasized and then it is overemphasized. Palestinians allow very little to get in the way of education, and it is not uncommon for families to send their children to school even with Israeli air strikes ringing just miles away. Hours-long delays at military checkpoints are factored into the travel time. Palestinians don’t arrive to class late — they leave home early.
Despite its challenging circumstances, Palestine is recognized throughout the Middle East for its academic achievement. Literacy rates are among the highest in the Middle East. Education, many Palestinians will say, is one of Palestine’s most sacred institutions.
A large part of the emphasis on education comes out of necessity. During the Nakba, Israeli paramilitary troops raiding Palestinian homes confiscated tons of Palestinian property, including books and important documents. Most of the books were never to be opened again. In the decades following the looting, thousands were given away, thousands were destroyed for ‘threatening the State’, and thousands were hidden away in the warehouse of a government library where they were later recategorized as abandoned property to erase any connection between the texts and their rightful owners. One of the researchers involved in these findings characterized this as a “cultural massacre”.
Israel’s ongoing appropriation and deliberate destruction of Palestinian history, culture, and infrastructure has turned the very essence of education into one of the Palestinian people’s most effective forms of resistance. History is being re-recorded. Theories are being redefined. Resourcefulness is paying off in the form of novel applications and technologies, such as the seeing-cane for the blind. And most importantly, families with virtually nothing left are still determined to send their children to school.
Education’s prominent role in Palestinian tradition extends to the diaspora as well, where students are growing more and more conscious of their privileged access to schools and resources. Although no statistics are currently available, it would not be surprising to see that a record number of Palestinians are enrolled in higher education and in graduate programs. To add on to that, students and educators are increasingly returning home to share their knowledge and to learn from what Palestinians on the ground have created, both intellectually and creatively.
The education infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territories is undoubtedly damaged. In only the last eight years, dozens of schools and university buildings in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed beyond repair as a result of Israeli invasions. Thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem have no classrooms. Israeli military curfews and arbitrary road and zone closures have impacted the ability of over a thousand Palestinian schools to cater to their students. Resources aren’t available. Technology is old or entirely non-existent. There are not enough social workers to combat the growing incidence of PTSD in Palestinian youth. Deep government regulation of public schools have alienated a significant number of students and their families. And so many Palestinian students have been killed. So many seats are empty. Classrooms are dark with despair, and no matter how hard the instructor tries to shift focus to the class material, those empty seats cannot be filled and those students cannot forget their absent peers’ faces. Education in Palestine is by all means a fleeting gift.
Israel’s siege is constructed to make these challenges as insurmountable as possible and to interfere with Palestinian efforts to educate themselves. One of the most striking examples occurs daily at the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Egypt maintains control of the Rafah border crossing and elects to keep it closed for months. Virtually nobody gets in or out. Hundreds of Palestinian students abandon their plans to attend schools outside of the Gaza Strip, where the prospects are appreciably brighter, because of these closed borders.
At face value, this seems as though Egypt is responsible for this obscene and inhumane closure of the border. To a very large extent, it is. But Israel is not unaccountable. Agreements made between the governments for ‘security purposes’ determine the status of the Rafah crossing’s gates. Entire months go by without the border opening, and on the rare occasion that it does, strict rules limit who gets to travel through. Students, despite evidence of school enrollment dates, are frequently considered to be traveling for personal reasons rather than for educational reasons, and so their appeals to cross are largely ignored.
In Gaza today, a group of stranded students staged a protest at the sea to mark their frustration. These students were forced to abandon their dreams, to attempt to forget their college acceptances, and to reconcile their disappointment at no longer being able to pursue the kind of education they worked so hard to prepare for.
At that, Israel and the complicit Egyptian government might consider this a victory in the name of smashing Palestine’s devotion to education. But if there’s one thing for certain, these students will try again and again and again, and in the meantime, they will be gathering knowledge, nourishing their ideas, and building new dreams.