Undergraduate students at Islamic University in Gaza City. (Erica Silverman/IRIN)
RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IRIN) - The next generation in the Gaza Strip may be less educated, less professional and perhaps more radical because an Israeli blockade has restricted educational and employment opportunities, say UN and other sources.
The four-year blockade has particularly affected youths aged 18-24, limiting access to higher education, academic exchanges and professional development, says Gaza’s education ministry. About 65 percent of Gaza’s 1.6 million people are under 25, according to UN estimates.
“Higher education in all its forms is absolutely critical to a functioning society and the creation of a future Palestinian state,” Max Gaylard, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, told IRIN, and “to maintain a necessary level of skills in professional sectors, like medicine and engineering.”
Gaza’s unemployment rate — nearly 50 percent according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) — indicates dire prospects for the rapidly growing and youthful population.
The economic blockade, imposed by Israel after the Islamist resistance movement Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, has obstructed the import of books, science laboratory and other educational equipment to Gaza, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Israel allows in limited humanitarian supplies.
The lack of facilities, new information and experiences has caused a marked deterioration of Gaza’s whole educational system. Noor, an English education student at al-Azhar University, ranked second in Gaza, said she lacked essential books for her coursework and even chairs were missing from lecture halls.
“Our universities are not ready for new generations,” she explained. “We only have one laboratory and two computer labs, and it is not enough.”
Enrolment levels at Gaza’s 14 public and private universities and colleges remain high, but conflict and the stringent blockade have seriously undermined access to, and the quality of, higher education, said UNESCO in a report.
According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, “Under the policy of complete closure imposed since June 2007, Palestinians from Gaza who once constituted some 35 percent of the student body at universities in the West Bank are virtually absent from West Bank education institutions.”
The development of two separate systems due to the Israeli-imposed movement restrictions, meant fewer subjects and facilities for Gaza’s university students, said UNESCO.
Can’t pay fees
About 80 percent of the Gaza population is aid dependent, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and higher education institutions in Gaza are feeling the financial strain.
The inability of students to cover fees has hit Gaza universities hard, since student fees provide about 60 percent of university running costs, according to Palestinian NGO Sharek Youth Forum.
“The level of education is being compromised and we have trouble hiring qualified professors and staff,” said Kamalain Shaath, president of the Islamic University, ranked top in Gaza and the West Bank. Half the students at the university, he added, were unable to meet tuition requirements this semester.
Damaged buildings still not rebuilt
Islamic University’s first medical school class of about fifty promising young doctors will graduate this spring, and will be desperately needed in this conflict area, although the university science labs that were destroyed during Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead,” were never rebuilt.
Seven universities and colleges were damaged during the offensive, which ended in January 2009, with six buildings fully destroyed and 16 partially, according to UNESCO. As of March 2011, rebuilding has not been possible owing to the embargo on building materials.
Overcrowding in schools is another problem. About 81 percent of Gaza’s public schools operate on double shifts, according Gaza’s education ministry director-general, Sharif Nouman. In 2010, only three new schools were built due to lack of building materials, yet another 100 need to be built, he said.
Meanwhile, the internal conflict between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas is putting pressure on the education system, due to the lack of communication between the Gaza and West Bank ministries, he added.
The unemployment rate among those aged 15-19 is about 72 percent, while unemployment affects 66 percent of those aged 20-24, according to a January socio-economic report by the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO). West Bank unemployment rates were 29 percent and 34 percent for these age groups, respectively.
About 70 percent of industrial establishments in Gaza have closed under the blockade, according to OCHA, while 120,000 private sector jobs were lost in the first two years of closure. A recent easing has allowed the limited export of cut flowers and strawberries from Gaza to Europe.
“When young people graduate they have almost no opportunity to find a job in a company or association,” said Bassam, a multi-media student at al-Azhar University. Some try to start their own businesses, but “this cannot succeed in Gaza now because of the blockade,” he added.
UN officials in the region have expressed concern that isolating youth in Gaza from broader values and opportunities will backfire. “A rapidly growing society, becoming poorer, that is subject to restrictions on education will encourage extremism in its worst forms,” warned Gaylard.
Deputy director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Public Diplomacy, Danny Seaman, however, said “Hamas uses access to Israel to perpetrate terror attacks against our civilians and this immediate threat outweighs the concern over increased militancy amongst youth in Gaza.”
Some 71 percent of university students surveyed by UNESCO reported they were not hopeful about the future and almost the same number worried there will be another war.
“Most of my peers want to emigrate,” said Shadi, a 26-year-old physical therapist in Gaza City. “We are isolated and frustrated.”
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