By Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper

Not one of the 450 presidents of American colleges and universities, who denounced the decision of the union representing British academics to promote a boycott of Israeli universities, raised their voice against the bombardment of the Islamic University in Gaza. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger who organized the petition remained silent, as did his co-signatories from Princeton, Northwestern, MIT and Cornell. Most others who signed similar petitions, like the 11,000 professors from nearly 1,000 universities around the world, also refrained from expressing their outrage when the leading university in the Gaza Strip was attacked. The artfully named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which organized the latter appeal, surely had nothing to say about the assault.

The story was reported widely by the different news agencies, including the Chronicle. Ha’aretz noted that Israel “bombed the Islamic University and a government compound in Gaza City, key centers of Hamas power, in the third day of its aerial assault on the city.” While the extent of the damage to the university, which was hit in six different air strikes, is unknown at this moment, Ha’aretz reported that “Two major buildings were leveled to the floor… One building was main laboratories and the other was lecture rooms buildings. Each building was 4 floors high.” Witnesses said the two university structures hit today were the science-laboratory block and the Women’s Building, where female students studied in classrooms separate from those for male students. There were no casualties, as the university was evacuated when the Israeli assault began on Saturday.

Virtually all the accounts agree that the Islamic University was attacked because it was a “cultural symbol” of the Hamas movement, the ruling party in the elected Palestinian government which Israel has targeted in its ongoing attacks on the Gaza Strip. Mysteriously, hardly any of the news articles emphasized the educational significance of this university, which exceeds by far its cultural or political symbolism.

Established – with the approval of the Israeli authorities – in 1978, the Islamic University is the first institution of higher education in the Gaza Strip and still its major and most important university, serving over 20,000 students, sixty percent of whom are women. It is comprised of ten faculties – education, religion, art, commerce, Shariah law, science, engineering, information technology, medicine and nursing – and awards B.A., B.Sc., M.A., M.Sc. and Diplomas. Taking into account that Palestinian universities have, in UNICEF’s words, been regionalized because Palestinian students from Gaza seeking higher education are barred by Israel from studying either in the West Bank or abroad, the educational significance of this institution becomes even more apparent.

These restrictions became international news when last summer, Israel refused to grant exit permits to seven carefully vetted Gazan students who has been awarded Fulbright fellowships by the State Department for study in the US. After the incident was covered by The New York Times, top State Department officials intervened to restore the students’ Fulbright fellowships – although Israel allowed only four of the seven to leave, even after appeals by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. “It is a welcome victory — for the students,” opined the New York Times in its July 8, 2008, editorial, “[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 buildings had been 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 denied 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 funding from the Pentagon and defense corporations. Unfortunately weapons development and even manufacture has become a major part of university systems worldwide – a fact that does not justify bombing them.

How, given the unfolding events, should academics respond to this assault? Regardless of one’s stand on the boycott of Israeli universities, anyone so concerned about academic freedom as to put one’s name to a petition, should be outraged no less by Israel’s destruction of a Palestine university. The question, then, is whether the university presidents and professors who signed the different petitions will speak out against the bombing of an 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).