With Schools in Ruins, Education in Gaza Will Be Hobbled for Years

Amjad Abu Daqqa was among the top students at his school in Khan Younis, excelling in math and English, and he was applying for a scholarship to study in the United States when war erupted in the Gaza Strip last October.

Teachers used to reward his good grades with trips to local historical sites or to the pier, where they would watch boats and take pictures of the sunset. He dreamed of going into medicine like his big sister, Nagham, who studied dentistry in Gaza City.

But his old life and old dreams now feel far away. His school was bombed, many of his friends and teachers are dead, and his family fled their home to seek safety in Rafah, along with more than one million others.

“Everything in my town is gone forever,” said Amjad, 16. “I feel like I am a body without a soul, and I want to feel hopeful again.”

No end to the war in Gaza is in sight. Even if there were, it would do little to change the bleak educational prospects of more than 625,000 students who the United Nations estimates are in the territory.

Seven months of war have devastated every level of education there. More than 80 percent of Gaza’s schools have been severely damaged or destroyed by fighting, according to the United Nations, including every one of its 12 universities.

That has led critics, including the Palestinian ministry of education and more than two dozen U.N. officials, to accuse Israel of a deliberate pattern of targeting educational facilities, much as it has been accused of targeting hospitals.

“It may be reasonable to ask if there is an intentional effort to comprehensively destroy the Palestinian education system, an action known as ‘scholasticide,’” a group of 25 U.N. experts said in a statement last month.

“These attacks are not isolated incidents,” it added. “They present a systematic pattern of violence aimed at dismantling the very foundation of Palestinian society.”

In response, the Israeli military said in a statement on Wednesday that it has no “doctrine that aims at causing maximal damage to civilian infrastructure.” It blamed the destruction of Gaza’s schools, like its hospitals, on the “exploitation of civilian structures for terror purposes” by Hamas, which it said builds tunnels beneath them and uses them to launch attacks and store weapons.

“Under certain conditions this illegal military use can void the schools of protection from attack,” the military said.

Hamas did not respond to a request for comment about Israeli accusations that it had used schools and other civilian sites in Gaza for military purposes. Hamas has long denied such accusations. When Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman, accused the group last fall of operating in schools, it responded with a statement saying “the claim that Hamas is using hospitals and schools as military sites is a repetition of a blatantly false narrative.”

The United Nations said last month that it had documented at least 5,479 students, 261 teachers and 95 university professors who had been killed in Gaza since October, as well as at least 7,819 students and 756 teachers wounded.

The implications for Gaza’s future are as profound as the devastation. Students have already experienced a long gap in their educations and now face a future with few intact schools to return to after the war ends.

The war has “really hugely affected the education system,” said Hamdan al-Agha, 40, a science teacher displaced from Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza. “And it will for generations.”

Before the war, Gaza had 813 schools that employed about 22,000 teachers, according to the Global Education Cluster, a research group that works with the United Nations. Many schools were run by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

But by last week, more than 85 percent of those schools were damaged or destroyed, according to a study conducted by the Education Cluster, based on satellite imagery. It said more than two-thirds of Gaza’s schools would either need to be rebuilt from the ground up or be extensively repaired before their buildings could be safely used again.

An earlier study found that more than a third of school buildings were struck directly and that 53 schools were “totally destroyed.” An additional 38 lost more than half their structures.

Universities have been especially hard hit. Al Azhar University in Gaza City, where Amjad’s sister, Nagham, studied dentistry, is in ruins. The Israeli Army used the campus as an outpost and said Hamas had operated there, leaving behind weapons. Nagham now spends her days cooking, cleaning the family tent and looking after her brother.

More than 320 school buildings have been used as shelters for displaced Gazans, and more than half of those have taken direct hits or were seriously damaged by blasts nearby, the Education Cluster study found.

One Israeli sergeant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he spent a week at Al Azhar University last fall. He said that soldiers found five tunnel entrances on campus and that he saw weapons, including rifles and grenades, in two tunnels.

“I felt like I was in a military base,” the sergeant said. “But if you look closely you can see it’s a university.”

Another soldier, a reservist who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the military used Al-Azhar as a position to guard a supply route through northern Gaza, which was also used to transport Palestinian prisoners.

In their down time, he said, soldiers played backgammon, drank coffee and rummaged through the ruins of the university. Most of the books they found were boring — they were “all about law or chicken anatomy,” he said — but sometimes soldiers found useful items.

“There were laboratories all around,” said the soldier, so “we got beakers and we washed them and cleaned them so we had coffee cups, which was nice.”

Amjad said he could think of five teachers at his school who were killed, including his science teacher, Eyad al-Riqeb, and his physical education teacher, who went by the nickname Abu Shaker. Sometimes going through the list of people and things he has lost feels like too much to bear.

“Gaza lost everything,” he said. “I have become hopeless.”

Some students have tried to continue studying during the war, helped by teachers who volunteer their time or parents who home-school their children in shelters and tents. Nagham has become Amjad’s wartime teacher.

One day he found an English textbook for sale on the sidewalk, where he said vendors often sell books to be used as kindling. His mother wanted to use it to make a fire, but Nagham helped Amjad persuade her to let him keep it. At night, the siblings sit together and review lessons in it. Amjad said he was still determined to study in the United States.

“I just read some paragraphs with her and she helps me with the correct pronunciation,” Amjad said. “She asks me about synonyms and antonyms of simple words we encounter.”

Nagham is happy to do it, but she has dreams of her own. She would like to join online lectures at Al-Najjah University in the West Bank and finish her degree, or at least take advanced English classes.

She has thought about putting her medical training to use in Rafah, but the shattered infrastructure in Gaza makes even dental exams seem impossible.

“All they do here is pull teeth,” she said. “There is no electricity.”

Displaced people in Rafah sometimes offer their tents for use as makeshift schoolhouses, where volunteers provide lessons for children in the camps, said Mohammed Shbair, a school principal from Khan Younis.

This spring, he helped organize five days’ worth of basic instruction taught by volunteers in Rafah. But he thought the lessons could have little impact, he said.

He often sees his former students in the street, selling food or waiting in long lines for bread or basic medicine. Seven months of war have taught them survival skills, not grammar and algebra.

Mr. Shbair, who has spent months living with his own children in a tent near the beach, said they were all just trying to stay alive.

“Most of them spend their whole day looking for firewood for their family,” he said. “How can these students think of any type of learning while basic things are not available for them?”

Adam Sella contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

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