On the Frontline: Reflecting on the ‘invisible’ at Gaza’s universities

On the Frontline: Reflecting on the ‘invisible’ at Gaza’s universities

Mona Jebril

What is striking about the Gaza Strip is that this small area – a 40 Km strip of Palestinian territories –  has witnessed successive patterns of destruction and dispossession by several occupations (Roy, 1995); for example, the Ottoman Rule (1516-1917), the British Mandate (1917-1948), the Egyptian Administration (1948-1967), and since 1976 the Israeli Occupation. Nowadays, Gaza’s airspace, maritime space and land crossings remain controlled by Israel, which makes it continuously isolated from the rest of the world. Also, according to Bouris (2015), the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza “was the third” since only 2008 (p.111). This left “over two thousand Palestinians dead, mostly civilians, over eleven thousand injured, and whole-scale destruction of neighborhoods, and infrastructure” (Shehadeh, 2015, p. 278). Violence in Gaza continues until today as demonstrated by the latest events of the Great March Return . The Strip also suffers from the consequences of division between its most competing factions, Hamas and Fatah.

For more than 20 years, I have been a resident of the Gaza Strip. At first, I worked as a teacher and trainer of teachers at its state schools. After completing an MSc in Higher Education (HE) from Oxford University, I moved my career to lecturing at two of Gaza’s universities. In Gaza, HE students and the academic staff were functioning under unconventional conditions. Internal challenges included, as similar to many other Arab countries, the lack of resources and a traditional educational context. Nonetheless, the reform of these universities was undermined by another hidden challenge, which seemed to suppress intellectual activity and act as a self-oppressing mechanism on their staff and students.  This inextricable challenge was quite ‘invisible’!  Some people used to take it lightly, responding to any inconvenience with ‘Smile: you are in [name of the university]’; others thought of it as the Gaza Strip’s ‘politics’ of university work.

In my Cambridge PhD study, I took this ‘invisible’ from reflection to research. In the course of the literature review, it was interesting to come across a similar observation by Roy (1995) on the Gaza Strip, yet in relation to the economic sector. Roy referred to a structure of “de-development”, through which education should be contemplated (1995, p. 110). My research explored this structure of de-development on the level of HE in Gaza. It was entitled “Academic Life Under Occupation: The Impact on Educationalists at Gaza’s Universities”. I explored the past and present HE experience at Gaza’s universities and how this experience may be evolving in a shifting socio-political context in the Arab world. For this purpose, I conducted 36 in-depth semi-structured interviews with lecturers and students at two of Gaza’s universities. Due to access difficulties, the interviews were conducted via Skype from Cambridge.

The research, with interdisciplinary orientation, discussed a wide array of issues related to educationalists’ academic life in the Gaza Strip.  These included themes such as mobility, social interaction and nepotism, and the critical relationship between solidarity and adversity in the Palestinian context and how these affected the past HE experience for lecturers when they were students. As for present HE experience, it was investigated in terms of unemployment, factionalism, gender relations on campus, as well as interviewing lecturers and students about the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. What impact did the Arab revolutions had on Gaza’s universities helped to shed light on how the Palestinian HE experience may evolve in the future.

The findings of this research show that in the past, educationalists’ movement was restricted by borders, barriers, checkpoint and roadblocks not only from and to the Gaza Strip, but also within it. This made them relatively more passive in terms of shaping their HE experiences, despite efforts to become resilient. The restrictions on their movement increased people’s social dependency, and eventually led to the spread of practices of nepotism or what is commonly known in Gaza as ‘wasta’, creating a cycle of oppression and inequality among Palestinians. Adversity was found to have strengthened people’s solidarity at times, but weakened it at others, causing further divisions and contradictions within the Palestinian community and undermining their struggle for a life of dignity and freedom.

In the present, students and their lecturers continue to face challenges. A context of Israeli occupation affected negatively their participation and their everyday life at Gaza’s universities.  For example, 60 per cent rate of unemployment in Gaza affected students with frustration that impacted on their motivation to engage in the teaching and learning process. The political culture at Gaza’s universities and the competition between Fatah and Hamas as political factions exerted limitations on dialogue at campus, and affected the fair distribution of grants and scholarships. From a gender perspective, societal traditional assumptions were reproduced within the universities’ campus, emphasizing differentiated treatment for males and females as well as restricting their interaction. The siege gave power to the society’s prescription in the isolated Gaza Strip, and put further restrictions on females’ ability to travel abroad for HE. The 2014 war added insult to injury as it caused both disruption and destruction to Gaza universities forcing them to prioritize immediate needs over quality and prospects.

How the HE experience will evolve out of this context in the future is uncertain. The Arab Spring revolutions have had an influence on Gaza HE institutions’ campuses as they have triggered more awareness of students’ grievances and discontent. Because of some political and educational barriers, however, students’ voices are a cacophony; they remain split between “compliance” and resistance (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 471).

When I started this research I had a feeling that there was something ‘invisible’ affecting the HE experience at Gaza’s universities. This research helped me to uncover this ‘invisible’. Lecturers and students at Gaza’s universities were found to work under conditions of visible and invisible oppression. The visible comes from the violent context in which they live (e.g. blockade, poverty and bombardment). The invisible comes from within educationalists themselves who, influenced by their dehumanizing experiences under occupation, remain in a state of multiple sieges. While their mobility is restricted by physical borders, their life choices and actions are also controlled by the limitations imposed on their personal freedoms because of both societal tradition and the Israeli occupation. The two layers of oppression, the external (visible) and internal (invisible), are interactive and influence each other. In this sense, educationalists contribute to counterproductive dynamics at Gaza universities or what Mr Zeyad UB, a participant from the academic staff, pointed out as a ‘simultaneous process of construction and destruction’.

All in all, this research shows that the impact of a structure of ‘de-development’ on Gaza’s universities is more complex that was previously thought. The study concludes by explaining six implications of this complex structure for academic practice at Gaza’s universities, offering nine policy recommendations for HE reform, and highlighting six areas for future research.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press.
Bouris, D. (2015). The vicious cycle of building and destroying: the 2014 war on Gaza. Mediterranean Politics, 20(1), 111-117.
Friere, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Rev.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,.
Roy, S. (1995). The Gaza Strip: the political economy of de-development. Washington, D.C.: The Institute of Palestinian Studies.
Shehadeh, S. (2015). The 2014 war on Gaza: engineering trauma and mass torture to break Palestinian resilience. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 12(3),278-294.


Mona Jebril is a Gates Scholar  and a member of Queens’ College , Cambridge. Previously Mona studied for her MSc in HE in Oxford where she won the Said Foundation Second Prize for academic and personal achievement. Mona has a significant experience as a teacher and trainer at State Schools and as a lecturer at two of Gaza’s universities. She is also a co-founder of the ASJ scholarship in Gaza. This piece is based on Mona’s PhD thesis, which was supervised by Prof Diane Reay. Mona has also produced four films from her research.

Image: Al Jazeera English (Jan 6, 2009), Gaza Burns. CC BY-SA 2.0,