The US Academy and the Destruction of Gaza’s Education System

After Columbia University students set up a pro-Palestinian encampment on April 17, similar ones formed on campuses not only in the United States but worldwide. On many campuses, university administrations brutally suppressed protests and in other cases engaged in bad-faith negotiations with student organizers. The students’ central demands were for their universities to disclose investments in companies complicit in Israeli war crimes, the violent occupation of Palestinian land, and apartheid and to divest from such companies, demands that universities failed to meet.

In response to the devastation of Gaza’s education sector, some encampments also demanded scholarships for students from the Strip. Nine months into its genocidal war on Gaza, Israel has destroyed all the universities and 60 percent of all educational facilities and killed more than 5,400 students, 260 teachers, 95 university professors, as cited by an April 18 panel of UN experts, who named Israel’s actions a “scholasticide.” As of February 2024, more than 555 Palestinian students in Gaza were rendered unable to travel abroad for university admission and scholarships abroad due to Israel’s war on Gaza.

The US academy must reckon with the reality that offering scholarships to students from Gaza, in lieu of divestment, months into Israel’s genocidal war is too little, too late. Rather, the ethical obligation of universities is twofold. First, they must boycott and divest from companies complicit in Israel’s human rights violations and cut ties with the Israeli academy for its facilitation of the Israeli war machine as demanded by student encampments and the broader Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Second, they should make significant contributions to the reconstruction of Gaza’s education sector. This requires university leadership to pressure the US government to lift structural barriers to economic and academic ties with Gaza.

Traveling abroad for scholarships during a genocide is impossible for the average Gaza student.

Offering gestures such as scholarships misses the crucial need for serious pressure on Israel and disregards the immense difficulty students in Gaza face when applying for scholarships, a challenge that has become nearly impossible to surmount. While scholarships are beneficial in theory, the immediate demand of student organizers in the United States and beyond is to stop the genocide. In Gaza, educators and students are being wantonly killed, and scholarships cannot save lives now, although Palestinian educators and students need the support. Without first stopping the genocide and holding Israel accountable, scholarships will not alleviate the deep suffering of Palestinians in Gaza or challenge the Israeli structures that oppress Palestinians.

Standardized Testing Under Blockade

Even before Israel launched the current war, the path to US university admissions and scholarships was prohibitively arduous and expensive for most Palestinians in Gaza. Applicants require advanced English language skills that are only attainable in private schools, through private tutoring, or in extracurricular programs. With 81.5 percent of Gaza’s population living under the poverty line and a 47 percent unemployment rate as of 2022, achieving English fluency was an extremely difficult endeavor for the vast majority of students. The fee for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), a requirement for international students in the United States, is exorbitantly expensive for most Palestinians in Gaza. The costs of registration and preparation for the required standardized tests for US college admissions, the SAT or ACT (criticized even within the United States for their role in perpetuating educational inequality), also are unattainable to most in Gaza.

Furthermore, the effects of Israel’s blockade made life for the average student in Gaza extremely onerous. With only six to eight hours of electricity a day, most students struggled to fulfill the basic requirements of their schools and colleges, let alone embark on a costly and time-consuming journey to pursue scholarships outside Gaza. If conditions before the war were nearly impossible for the average student in Gaza to apply for and acquire scholarships in the United States due to the blockade, traveling abroad for scholarships during a genocidal war is completely out of the question. American universities administrators should know this.

Rounding Out a College Application Before and After October 2023

Another hurdle is students’ need for letters of recommendation from teachers. Prior to the war, when Gaza’s educational system was functioning, public school students were divided into morning and afternoon shifts, resulting in very large class sizes and shortened instruction time. Many schools were not equipped with the proper technology, including internet access for teachers, who often experienced reduced and delayed salaries due to Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza. Before the rise of the 2024 student protest encampments, American universities never bothered to ask who was missing from their annual pool of applicants or what kind of resources and support they could have offered educators and applicants in Gaza.

Realistically, to attend an American university, a Palestinian from Gaza requires access to a parallel education system. Such a system, available only to very few in Gaza, offers not only private full-time education with smaller classroom sizes and excellent English instruction, but also extracurricular activities to create an impressive applicant file, external tutoring, standardized test preparation courses, and so on. The vast majority of Gaza’s students could not dream of having access to such resources.

Coming Face-to-Face with University Investment Portfolios at the Erez Crossing

Perhaps Gaza students’ largest barrier to American higher education has not come during the application process, but when it is time to leave for the United States. Palestinians in Gaza must secure an Israeli permit to pass through the Erez Crossing, north of the Gaza Strip, take a bus to Jerusalem for a visa interview at the US Embassy, and then before the start of the semester travel through the Rafah Crossing to enter Egypt and fly out of Cairo. Often, those few who defied the odds and received admission to undergraduate or graduate degree programs, scholarships, or other selective programs in the United States, were not allowed to leave the Strip. Israel often arbitrarily delayed permits for bus rides and visa interviews. Among the nearly 38,000 Palestinians massacred in Gaza, and among those living in tents waiting for the genocide to end, are students and scholars whose fate hung in the balance for years. For those who somehow managed to access foreign educational opportunities, the point is moot, the scholarships hypothetical. The Rafah Crossing is no more, destroyed in Israel’s war.

Those who did make it to the Erez Crossing had to endure a humiliating and torturous process of intimidation, strip-searching, and interrogation facilitated by US technology companies.1 Palestinians were forced to go through body scanners made by G1 Secure Solutions and subjected to biometric data collection empowered by HP, Inc. technology. Information gleaned by the Israelis through intimidation and interrogation is registered in the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority system by HP services, and will soon be managed using IBM services. For twenty years, campus divestment campaigns have centered on the demand to divest from American companies such as HP and IBM for these abuses at Erez (which is also enabled by the same technology in the Israeli prison system, and at checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem).

The Obligations of the US Academy after Scholasticide

In the context of Israel’s ongoing genocide, it is time for American universities to recognize that they have not done nearly enough to prevent the systematic elimination of Gaza’s academic community. University administrators who may hope to offer a handful of scholarships to students from Gaza as a bargaining chip for the inevitable wave of student activism in the upcoming academic year must answer the following questions. For what scholarships can students in Gaza apply when Israeli bombs and missiles—mostly manufactured in and funded by the United States—continue to fall on them? How can students apply for scholarships when the records of their achievements, stellar high school transcripts, certificates for academic competitions, sports trophies, and more are destroyed and their schools reduced to dust?

Universities shut down debate on this issue for decades, suppressing the academic freedom of students and faculty alike for attempting to question this system.

Through their investments, universities are not just indirectly profiteering from this system of oppression, but also from of Israel’s 17-year blockade of Gaza and the Strip’s de-development. Further, universities shut down debate on this issue for decades, suppressing the academic freedom of students and faculty alike for attempting to question this system.

In this context, US universities should not evade their responsibility as influential institutions in shaping norms, especially if they have investments in companies that are complicit in human rights violations in Palestine or direct relationships with Israeli universities that are themselves part of the system oppressing Palestinians. Here, divesting is but the first step in acknowledging complicity. In addition to divesting from harmful companies, US colleges and universities must extend support to their Palestinian counterparts, especially in Gaza, to help these institutions recover, rebuild, and invest in the professional development of scholars and academic staff. This is not a favor to Palestinians, but an ethical obligation of US academic institutions that have economically benefited from complicit investments.

US universities should not simply help improve the conditions of a few individuals in and from Gaza. Instead, they should contribute to the fundamental change that Palestinians are owed by the world by pushing toward challenging the Israeli system of oppression, settler-colonialism, and occupation.

Envisioning such a role for the US academy in Gaza’s reconstruction cannot occur without challenging the political and legal barriers that stand in the way of translating the growing US public support for Palestinians into effective action. Inside the United States, there are obstacles related to funding policies and US legislation that restrain and even attempt to criminalize institutions for supporting Palestinians. The only acceptable ‘day after’ scenario must be one that starts immediately, not a return to the status quo of blockade and the sanctioning of Gaza’s students. The structural barriers standing in the way of supporting Gaza’s education sector and academic boycott of Gaza must be removed. Universities must play a role in pushing for this change, stopping further damage through divestment, ending academic exchanges with Israel, and offering substantial resources to Palestinian academics in Gaza as they one day rebuild the higher education system.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. 

*Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Ringo Chiu
1 To learn more about this process, see Between Two Crossings, a documentary film co-directed by Yaser Murtaja, a journalist who was assassinated by an Israeli sniper during the Great March of Return protests in 2018 and Roshdi Sarraj, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in October 2023. The documentary follows a Palestinian student as she attempts to exit Gaza for university studies in the United States, where she has a scholarship awaiting her, on time for the start of the academic year.