This is a shortened version of the letter that was sent to the board of directors of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR). The letter was signed by more than 370 professors and more than 1,400 academics and students.
On Wednesday, January 17, the Israeli army blew up https://twitter.com/MiddleEastEye/status/1747895442388480045 in the south of Gaza City. The video of the campus destruction caused international outrage. However, the university itself did not pose a direct threat. Until then, the university buildings would have mainly served as a base for the Israeli army.
This devastating attack is not an isolated incident. In December last year, the Islamic University’s medical school was blown up by the Israeli army in a similar and expertly planned manner. A month earlier, Al Quds Open University was also used as an army base and then blown up.
Meanwhile, all university campuses in the Gaza Strip have now been permanently damaged or even completely destroyed. UNICEF spokesman Jonathan Crick says there is no longer any form of education in Gaza and that more than 600,000 students and pupils, including 90,000 university students, can no longer go to school. However, the right to education is anchored in international humanitarian law, even in times of war and armed conflict.
In the South African complaint to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), we read that the Israeli army also murdered several Palestinian intellectuals and academics. In three months, hundreds of academics and teachers were murdered, including at least 94 university teachers. In addition to the unprecedented number of murdered journalists, the Israeli army appears to https://twitter.com/NimerSultany/status/1749504837811605561 also deliberately target leading intellectuals in Gaza.
Not only higher education is the victim of Israel’s ruthless military campaign, but also Gaza’s education system as a whole and the broader knowledge sector in general. The Israeli army destroyed Gaza’s main libraries, along with many other bookstores, publishing houses and hundreds of other knowledge institutions. On December 29, the United Nations reported that 352 schools in Gaza had been damaged, more than 70 percent of Gaza’s educational infrastructure.
These recent attacks on the education system in Gaza fit within a much broader history of systematic attacks on and institutional discrimination against the Palestinian education system under Israel’s occupation and apartheid system. Universities were also repeatedly attacked, invaded and bombed in previous military campaigns.
But violence against education also goes much further than just direct military attacks. Gaza’s universities and their staff and students have been cut off from the rest of the university world by the Israeli blockade for 16 years. The Israeli occupation also systematically prevents the access of international colleagues to Palestinian universities, both in Gaza and the West Bank.
The entire occupation infrastructure of checkpoints, the so-called security wall, but also arbitrary and repeated arrests of students and colleagues, military raids on campuses, etc., have been systematically undermining Palestinian education for decades through the illegal Israeli occupation. According to The Right to Education Campaign from our colleagues at Birzeit University, this is “not only a violation of the human rights of individuals, but also an attack on the development of Palestinian society as a whole.”
In Israel itself, the right to education of Palestinians is also systematically undermined and thwarted. Israel discriminates against Palestinian students on a structural basis, including through certain social and economic benefits that are exclusively linked to military service. Since October 7, repression and censorship against Palestinian students and teachers have only increased. A recent report by the Palestinian NGO Adalah documented systematic disciplinary measures, suspensions, interrogations, harassment and even arrests of Palestinian students on Israeli campuses after October 7. In addition, the few teachers at Israeli institutions who are critical of the occupation, both Palestinian and Israeli teachers, are often persecuted for their views.
This systematic undermining and destruction of the right to education reminds us of similar crimes 20 years ago, when, after years of sanctions against Iraq and the subsequent American invasion in the early 21st century, the Iraqi education system was also almost completely destroyed. In the context of that illegal invasion, academics from Ghent University and KU Leuven, together with their Iraqi colleagues, described these crimes as a form of ‘educide’ (a portmanteau of ‘education’ and ‘genocide’).
The term is also applicable today to Gaza and the Palestinian education system. Thousands of students no longer receive education. Hundreds of colleagues no longer have jobs. Valuable archives and the years of research work of many Palestinian colleagues were also permanently lost. The current military campaign is therefore also a direct attack on the work, memory and history of the Palestinian people. The American Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the largest academic network of regional experts, denounced these war crimes and acts of “ethnic cleansing” in an open letter addressed to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and several of his ministers.
Many of our international colleagues strongly condemned the recent destruction of Al-Israa University. We join their outrage and condemnation. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, also explicitly referred to the blowing up of the university as a form of ‘educide’.
These are crimes that are explicitly aimed at destroying the mission, vision and moral values that we as a university community stand for and defend. We therefore believe that the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR) and our Flemish universities can make a real difference with very concrete actions. We therefore urge that our institutions take their responsibility, as they have done in the recent past towards Iran and Russia.
Therefore, we ask (1) that the VLIR clearly and explicitly condemns the deliberate destruction of Palestinian educational institutions and the continued discrimination against Palestinian students and colleagues. (2) That our universities make additional financial resources available for the care and protection of Palestinian colleagues and students. (3) A suspension, with immediate effect, of all academic cooperation with Israeli knowledge institutions and other public and private partners as long as the destruction of the Palestinian education system continues. After all, the targeted attack on the Palestinian education system has been systematically facilitated and supported by Israeli universities for much longer.
In 2018, the VLIR unanimously decided to suspend cooperation with Iranian institutions as long as the fundamental human rights of our colleague Ahmadreza Djalali, who has been sentenced to death, affiliated with the VUB, are not guaranteed. A colleague affiliated with the Conflict and Development Studies department (UGent) is also currently in mortal danger. He is currently living in a tent in southern Gaza after his apartment in Gaza City was destroyed by the Israeli army. This suspension would also be in line with the VLIR decision to stop all institutional cooperation with Russian universities that supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Finally (4), we ask that VLIR establish an inter-university working group on the issue of ‘educide’ that can conduct a more thorough investigation into the extent of the current destruction of the education system in Palestine. The publication of the findings of this working group can also benefit the debate on educide with our European partners and enable our democratic representatives at the Belgian and European levels to raise the issue of educide at their respective policy levels.
In an opinion piece, VUB rector and current chairman of the VLIR, Jan Danckaert, emphasized that universities should not or cannot be neutral: “A university is de facto committed to public well-being, to democracy and to human rights.” According to the VUB rector, universities must above all be objective, look at the facts and take seriously the reports and findings of international institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations. In light of the recent ruling of the International Court of Justice and in light of the facts that an institution such as the UN continues to document, together with many other knowledge institutions and human rights organizations, we, as signatories of this letter, urge the VLIR to act according to its own principles and in line with its previous commitments.
Some of the signatories: Prof. Eva Brems (UGent), Prof. Sami Zemni (UGent), Prof. Nadia Fadil (KU Leuven), Prof. Marleen Temmerman (UGent), Prof. Marc Van Ranst (KU Leuven), Prof. Itamar Shachar (UHasselt), prof. Gert Van Hecken (UA), prof. Koen Bogaert (UGent), prof. Gita Deneckere (UGent), prof. Lieven De Cauter (KU Leuven), prof. Tomaso Ferrando (UA), prof Ilke Adam (VUB), Prof. Karel Arnaut (KU Leuven), Prof. Lena Imeraj (VUB), Prof. Carine Defoort (KU Leuven), Prof. Thomas Van Riet (KU Leuven), Prof. Iman Lechkar (VUB) , Prof. Christopher Parker (UGent), Prof. Jan Orbie (UGent), Prof. Tijl De Bie (UGent), Dr. Brigitte Herremans (UGent), Jihane Sliti (VUB), Maha Abdallah (UA), Fayrouz Yousfi (UGent ), Jouke Huijzer (VUB), Lander Govaerts (VUB), Sara Weschler (UGent).