Class Destroyed

Built over decades, Gaza’s universities embodied the ambitions of young Palestinians.

In weeks, the Israeli military destroyed them.

Class Destroyed

By Chantal Da Silva, Yasmine Salam, Matthew Mulligan and Bianca Britton

April 4, 2024

Gaza’s universities are revered, embodying Palestinians’ dreams and ambitions, their values and traditions.

They have also represented a way for Palestinians to exercise some control over lives stifled by conflict, a 17-year blockade, political stagnation and misrule, and an economy on its knees.

“We don't have oil, we don't have petroleum, we don't have gold. The only capital we have is a human capital,” Akram Habeeb, an English literature professor said. “So we believe in education.”

This is the Islamic University of Gaza, or IUG, the Strip’s oldest degree-awarding institution.

It opened in 1978, its earliest classes held in tents.

It grew into a sprawling and modern campus with dozens of buildings across Gaza, with doctors, engineers, celebrated poets and politicians — including Hamas leaders — among its graduates.

This is IUG now.

The Israeli military destroyed the university’s main buildings in air strikes on Oct. 11.

It hailed the assault, saying the buildings and surrounding areas were used by Hamas “above and below ground” for training and to develop weapons. University administrators and students deny these charges.

This was Israa University.

Its towering main building and archway entrance was a love letter to Islamic architecture.

Gaza’s youngest university was set to mark its 10th anniversary this year — and planned to open to the public a museum highlighting Palestinian history and culture.

In moments, Israa was destroyed.

Video of the Israel Defense Forces' demolition of Israa’s main building appeared online on Jan. 17. The IDF initially said that the building had been “used by Hamas for military activity” and that there were concerns the group might use it to attack Israeli forces.

Later, the IDF said there had been “flaws in the operational process, including in the decision to destroy the entire building,” noting that the commander who ordered the demolition was formally censured and that an investigation was ongoing. The IDF did not respond to a subsequent request for further information.

Israa and IUG were not alone — universities across Gaza have been leveled.

According to an NBC News analysis of more than 60 videos and photos, and interviews with university administrators, professors, students and experts, at least five of Gaza’s seven major universities have been destroyed or partially damaged since Israel launched its offensive following Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks, which killed some 1,200 and saw 240 taken hostage. More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing war, including prominent professors, university leaders, and students.

‘Our future is dead’

Abdallah Abujaser, a 21-year-old clinical psychology student at Israa, first saw the video of his school reduced to rubble on social media.

It was like watching his future disappear.

A photograph on Abujaser's Instagram account on Oct. 4 shows him on campus, beaming.

“The first picture in the fourth year,” he wrote alongside a dove and olive branch emoji.

Days later the war shattered his plans of becoming a qualified psychologist.

Abujaser was drawn to Israa because of its beautiful campus and its clinical psychology program — and he loved playing on the school’s competitive volleyball team.

He also believed in Israa’s mission — a modern university providing a higher education for those who might not be able to afford it.

Weekly hangouts with his three best friends are now WhatsApp calls, where the four men ask, “Are you OK? … Are you still alive?”

Nights are now spent in a bleak room with his mother and three sisters in Rafah, along with more than 1 million other displaced Palestinians.

The constant buzzing drones and thudding explosions remind him that the city, once deemed a safe zone by the Israeli military, could be stormed at any moment. He said he tries to remain optimistic, but until Gaza’s universities are rebuilt “our future is dead.”

Aya Salama, a 21-year-old English language and translation student, was set to graduate this spring from Al-Azhar University. Here she’s pictured, wearing a pink headscarf, with her classmates and professor during a phonetics class in May 2022.

Salama, left, and her friends are struggling to cope with their academic plans hanging in the balance. “As a student, this year was supposed to be the most beautiful year for us,” she said. 

“We were dreaming of the graduation party, what we were going to wear, what activities we were going to do.”

Salama fondly recalled the “breakfast parties” she would have with her friends on Al-Azhar’s lawn before classes. It was a ritual of sorts for them.

This is Salama’s home after it was demolished in an airstrike on Al Maghazi camp in northern Gaza on New Year’s Eve.

“The Israeli army has killed all our plans, all our passions,” she said, referring to her disrupted college life, adding that she has “literally cried many nights” over the news that her campus had also been destroyed.

The IDF said armed terrorists and a missile launching position were spotted near Al-Azhar, adding “enemy infrastructure” was disguised in its buildings. It also published photos of a tunnel shaft and explosive charges, rocket parts, launchers, explosive activation systems and weapons technology it says were found.

"The findings indicate that Hamas used the university building in order to execute attacks against our forces," the IDF said.

University administrators did not respond to requests for comment on the IDF allegations.

‘You’re fighting the existence of the Palestinians’

Around half of Gaza