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 burnishing.”
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 is director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. His latest book is An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel (Pluto Press, 2008).