Where’s the Academic Outrage Over the Bombing of a University in Gaza?

December 31, 2008
Targeting Islamic University
Where’s the Academic Outrage Over the Bombing of a University in Gaza?


Not one of the nearly 450 presidents of American colleges and
universities who prominently denounced an effort by British academics
to boycott Israeli universities in September 2007 have raised their
voice in opposition to Israel’s bombardment of the Islamic University
of Gaza earlier this week. Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia
University, who organized the petition, has been silent, as have his
co-signatories from Princeton, Northwestern, and Cornell Universities,
and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most others who signed
similar petitions, like the 11,000 professors from nearly 1,000
universities around the world, have also refrained from expressing
their outrage at Israel’s attack on the leading university in Gaza.
The artfully named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which
organized the latter appeal, has said nothing about the assault.

While the extent of the damage to the Islamic University, which was
hit in six separate airstrikes, is still unknown, recent reports
indicate that at least two major buildings were targeted, a science
laboratory and the Ladies’ Building, where female students attended
classes. There were no casualties, as the university was evacuated
when the Israeli assault began on Saturday.

Virtually all the commentators agree that the Islamic University was
attacked, in part, because it is a cultural symbol of Hamas, the
ruling party in the elected Palestinian government, which Israel has
targeted in its continuing attacks in Gaza. Mysteriously, hardly any
of the news coverage has emphasized the educational significance of
the university, which far exceeds its cultural or political symbolism.

Established in 1978 by the founder of Hamas — with the approval of
Israeli authorities — the Islamic University is the first and most
important institution of higher education in Gaza, serving more than
20,000 students, 60 percent of whom are women. It comprises 10
faculties — education, religion, art, commerce, Shariah law, science,
engineering, information technology, medicine, and nursing — and
awards a variety of bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Taking into
account that Palestinian universities have been regionalized because
Palestinian students from Gaza are barred by Israel from studying
either in the West Bank or abroad, the educational significance of the
Islamic University becomes even more apparent.

Those restrictions became international news last summer when Israel
refused to grant exit permits to seven carefully vetted students from
Gaza who had been awarded Fulbright fellowships by the State
Department to study in the United States. After top State Department
officials intervened, the students’ scholarships were restored —
though Israel allowed only four of the seven to leave, even after
appeals by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “It is a welcome
victory — for the students,” opined The New York Times, and “for
Israel, which should want to see more of Gaza’s young people follow a
path of hope and education rather than hopelessness and martyrdom; and
for the United States, whose image in the Middle East badly needs

Notwithstanding the importance of the Islamic University, Israel has
tried to justify the bombing. An army spokeswoman told The Chronicle
that the targeted buildings were used as “a research and development
center for Hamas weapons, including Qassam rockets. … One of the
structures struck housed explosives laboratories that were an
inseparable part of Hamas’s research-and-development program, as well
as places that served as storage facilities for the organization. The
development of these weapons took place under the auspices of senior
lecturers who are activists in Hamas.”

Islamic University officials deny the Israeli allegations. Yet even if
there is some merit in them, it is common knowledge that practically
all major American and Israeli universities are engaged in research
and development of military applications and receive money from the
Pentagon and defense corporations. Weapon development and even
manufacturing have, unfortunately, become major projects at
universities worldwide — a fact that does not justify bombing them.

By launching an attack on Gaza, the Israeli government has once again
chosen to adopt strategies of violence that are tragically akin to the
ones deployed by Hamas — only the Israeli tactics are much more
lethal. How should academics respond to this assault on an institution
of higher education? Regardless of one’s stand on the proposed boycott
of Israeli universities, anyone so concerned about academic freedom as
to put one’s name on a petition should be no less outraged when Israel
bombs a Palestinian university. The question, then, is whether the
university presidents and professors who signed the various petitions
denouncing efforts to boycott Israel will speak out against the
destruction of the Islamic University.

Neve Gordon is chair of the department of politics and government at
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of Israel’s Occupation
(University of California Press, 2008).

Jeff Halper Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee
Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and author of An Israeli in
Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel (Pluto Press,
2008). He can be reached at jeff@icahd.org.


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