Articles, International News, News

Is Israel systematically targeting Gaza’s scientists, scholars and doctors?

Israel is deliberately eliminating top scientists, doctors and academics in Gaza, the loss of whom will leave an incalculable impact on Palestinian society in Gaza. They are especially targeting those qualified in rare specialisms who have left a gaping hole behind them, which will be extremely difficult to fill.

Repeated Israeli threats didn’t deter renowned Palestinian writer, poet, and English literature professor, Refaat Alareer, from continuing to post in English on social media about the massacres Israeli forces were carrying out daily since October 7.

He persevered, painting a picture for the whole world to see the details of daily life under the bombardment, and telling the stories of the martyrs.

“We are enveloped in thick layers of gunpowder and cement,” Alareer (44) wrote in one of his final messages on the social media platform X, on 4 December, adding “Many are still trapped in Shejaiya including some of my children and family members”.

He was killed on December 7, 2023, in what Euro-Med Monitor described as a surgical bombing operation targeting only his apartment in the residential 3-storey building in which he lived. The organisation concluded Alareer was deliberately targeted, “after weeks of death threats […] online and by phone from Israeli accounts.”

Gazan poet Mosab Abu Toha, a friend of Alareer’s, expressed his heartbreak in a statement for Al-Araby Al-JadeedThe New Arab’s Arabic-language sister edition: “I can’t imagine Alareer being assassinated with his family”, adding: “This is the biggest loss, because Alareer was a voice for Palestine across the world.”

Systematic targeting of high-skilled professionals in the sciences

“By assassinating the most highly-qualified academics and scientists, as well as destroying longstanding educational institutions, like the Islamic University, Al-Azhar University and Al-Quds Open University, Israel seeks to cripple the scientific and educational systems in Gaza,” says Dr Adnan Al-Hindi, former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the Islamic University in Gaza.

He says Israel has targeted those with rare specialisations and those highly distinguished in their fields, like Dr Sufyan Tayeh, late President of the Islamic University and a world-renowned physicist.

Dr Tayeh held a PhD in theoretical physics and applied mathematics, and was awarded the Abdul Hameed Shuman Award for Young Arab Scientists in November 2021. He was also the UNESCO Chair for Physical, Astrophysical and Space Sciences in Palestine, and Stanford University in the US ranked him among the top 2% of researchers globally in 2021, in the field of optics.

Israeli warplanes bombed Dr Tayeh’s home in the Al-Falouja neighbourhood of the Jabalia refugee camp in north Gaza on December 2, killing him along with his family of nine, according to his relative, Mohammed Tayeh.

Many other members of the top echelon of Gaza’s scientific community have also been targeted by Israeli airstrikes, killing them and their entire families.

Dr Muhammed Eid Shabir, a microbiology professor and former president of the Islamic University, was killed with several family members after his house was bombed by Israeli warplanes.

According to his daughter, he and his wife were executed by an Israeli sniper after fleeing their home after it was struck. He was 77 years old.

Dr Tayseer Ibrahim, an academic and lecturer of Islamic Jurisprudence and its early history, and dean of the Shariah and Law Faculty at the Islamic University, was killed alongside his whole family in an air raid on Nuseirat camp in central Gaza in mid-October.

In early December, Dr Khitam Elwasife, a physics professor and deputy dean at the Islamic University’s Faculty of Science, and her husband Dr Mahmoud Abu Daf, former dean of the Faculty of Education, were killed with several family members when their house was hit during an air raid.

Another highly prominent academic killed by Israel was the President of the University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza, Dr Said Anwar Alzebda. He was killed along with eight family members when their home in the Zeitoun neighbourhood in Gaza City was bombed on December 31. 

“Israel is systematically selecting top Palestinian academics to inflict maximum damage on the Palestinian community and obstruct scientific and technological development in the future,” says Ismail Thawabta, head of the government media office in Gaza.

He explained that in the current assault, Israel had targeted and killed 11 researchers who had made major contributions to their fields, like Dr Sufyan Tayeh and Dr Saeed Talal Al-Dahshan.

Al-Dahshan was an expert in international law and the author of How to Sue Israel?: The International Prosecution of Israel and Its Leaders for Their Crimes Against the Palestinians, a book which outlined a legal path on how to hold Israel accountable for breaking international law.

Al-Dahshan and his family were killed in an Israeli airstrike on their home in Gaza City on October 11, says Thawabta, adding: “Replacing these scholars and academics won’t be easy, because they are figures who amassed their expertise over decades of study and development.”

Targeting academics, writers, and scientists — civilians — without a connection to military actions is a war crime under the Rome statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in accordance with Article 8(2)(a) and Article 8(2)(a)(i), which concerns the “War crime of Wilful killing”.

This specifies that crimes come under this designation if the perpetrator kills one or more persons protected “under one or more of the Geneva Conventions of 1949”, and that “the perpetrator was aware of the factual circumstances that established that protected status” and “the conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international armed conflict” and “the perpetrator was aware of factual circumstances that established the existence of an armed conflict”.

Eliminating experienced doctors

Since the start of the assault, Israel has killed 308 medical personnel, including 30 doctors, 11 of them specialists in rare and essential fields such as microsurgery, kidney transplantation, infertility, and burns.

These professionals will be difficult to replace, says Gaza’s Ministry of Health spokesman Dr Ashraf Al-Qudra, and their absence is having a devastating impact on the entire medical sector, especially at a time when the sector has a greater need than ever for these specialisations in light of the brutal crimes Israel is carrying out against the Palestinians.

“Israel’s pursuit of Gaza’s medical professionals has extended beyond targeted killings,” adds Al-Qudra. He explains that it has also detained 100 of them, including Dr Muhammad Abu Salima, the director of Al-Shifa Hospital, Dr Ahmed al-Kahlout, the director of the Kamal Adwan Hospital and Dr Ahmad Muhanna, the medical director of Al Awda Hospital.

Additionally, 138 healthcare facilities have been targeted, and 23 hospitals have been destroyed or rendered inoperative.

Al-Qudra pointed out further incidents of direct targeting of renowned and highly-skilled medical specialists, like Dr Medhat Saidam, a plastic reconstructive burn surgeon at Al-Shifa Hospital, who was killed with three of his sons when an airstrike hit his house in the second week of the assault. Saidam’s professional career spanned about 25 years, during which he witnessed most of the wars Israel unleashed against the Gaza Strip.

Israel also killed obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Razan Al-Rakhawi and her husband, Dr Tamer Al-Khayyat, an anesthesiologist and critical care physician, who worked at the Emirati Women’s Hospital and the Emirates European Hospital respectively, in a bombing that targeted several homes in Rafah on October 13 last year.

On December 30 one of the most prominent and skilled orthopaedic specialists in Gaza, Muhammad Ahmed Matar, who worked at the Indonesian Hospital, was killed alongside three of his children.

Al-Qudra describes Matar’s death as a huge loss to the health sector: “Gaza’s hospitals are in dire need of his services in light of the tens of thousands of casualties, including thousands who suffer from bone damage.”

On October 15 Israeli forces carried out a hideous massacre using airstrikes and artillery shells on the Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood in the south of Gaza City. Dr Omar Saleh Farwana was killed in the onslaught with his wife, children, and grandchildren, all in their home.

Dr Farwana was a renowned infertility and IVF specialist who worked at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and was also the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the Islamic University with 30 years of experience in his field.

Israel also killed the only nephrology and kidney transplant specialist in Gaza, Dr Hammam Alloh, who was killed alongside his father when the house he was in was hit by an Israeli airstrike on November 12.

According to the Palestinian NGOs Network, Israel’s targeting of doctors is not new.

In 2014, during Israel’s devastating assault Operation Protective Edge, which killed 2,251 Palestinians in Gaza over 51 days, 23 medical personnel were killed while performing their life-saving duties. In the current conflict, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) reported that over 300 health sector staff had been killed by December 19.

Destroying Gaza’s social fabric

“It’s not possible to look at the targeted killings of scholars and the most highly qualified professionals and doctors in the Palestinian community as though they’ve just randomly, unintentionally, been caught up in military operations,” says Lawyer Abdullah Sharshara, Coordinator of the Legal Protection Unit for journalists at Press House (an independent, non-profit media institution in Gaza).

He believes the systematic “assassination” of this highly educated segment of the Palestinian nation is deliberate, and constitutes extra painful blows to the Palestinian people amid the continuous massacres being perpetrated against them.

This is because the Israeli occupiers want to deprive universities, scientific research centres and civil society institutions of their staff, he explains, and destroy the tools and platforms of those who remain to undermine their ability to function and bring about change.

The ultimate goal is to render Gaza’s Palestinian community powerless to demand its rights, and this approach is one of Israel’s tactics to bring about this socio-political deterioration.  

“When the war is over, the impact of these crimes on the social, psychological and economic levels will certainly become clear,” says Gazan academic Dr Amjad Juma, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at A’Sharqiyah University in Oman.

Israel is targeting these individuals because they are a cornerstone of Palestinian society, Juma explains, and by decimating this vital cohort, Israel aims to tear apart Gaza’s social fabric and wreak a heavy psychological toll on the population.

Moreover, Israel is aiming to send an implicit message to other highly skilled, qualified and educated individuals — that there is no place for them in the Gaza Strip, and that emigration is their best option, says Juma.

Killing these figures, who represent Palestine’s human capital, is also a punishment by proxy for those who believe in the hope these people, and education in general, represent.

Ultimately, he says, “These sectors will need a long time to find replacements in these specialisms, who will need years of training and obtaining qualifications, which will impact their ability to operate.”