The Life of a Student in Gaza

“That was the happiest day of my life,” said the young Palestinian, “I was freed that day.”

“Come on,” I laughed as we walked down the dusty Gazan street, the Mediterranean sun beating down hard on our faces, “it couldn’t have been that bad. I mean, we all dislike school to some degree, but it has its nice things too.”

His grave eyes looked wholly unconvinced, “the day I graduated from university was the best day of my life,” he firmly repeated. And then he added, more to himself than to me, “I wish I could erase all my memories of my time in school.”


By 1991 the first Intifada (Palestinian Uprising) was coming to an end. The streets of Gaza slowly emptied of the Israeli soldiers and tanks. The bodies of martyred Palestinians were less often carried to neighborhood graveyards. And in Beit Hanoun, a northern town of Gaza, six-year-old Ahmad began his first day of school.

He enjoyed school. He worked hard and was always the first in his year. Life, one could say, was becoming rather normal in Gaza. And upon finishing middle school in 2000, as a reward for his scholastic achievement, Ahmad received the gift of a lifetime. He, along with 19 other students from Gaza, was selected by the Ministry of Education to join a Seeds of Peace summer camp in the US.

He had a wonderful time in America. What an adventure for the 14-year-old boy! He improved his English. He made new friends. He experienced a whole knew world in that beautiful state of Maine. A world that told him life was open and free and full of opportunity. So he returned to Gaza, after this month-long excursion, full of hope.

But Ahmad was branded a Palestinian at birth. He would now learn to pay that price. The second Intifada irrupted only two months after he returned home from America, at the start of his first year of high school.

“The week before the Intifada started we were in Jerusalem, in Al-Aqsa Mosque. We were praying,” he said, recalling how close he was to being caught amid the initial Jerusalem massacre. The Israeli onslaught quickly spread throughout all the West Bank and Gaza, leaving no Palestinian in peace.

“There was no space,” he told me, trying to explain how the Israeli offensive effected every aspect of personal life for the Palestinian individual. Student life was only one such casualty.

It became dangerous to go to school. It became impossible to have a normal education. In his three years of high school, Ahmad‘s school was shelled by Israeli tanks six times, twice while students were inside.

“Each day we would have demonstrations against the attacks in Gaza and the West Bank because we had so many martyrs… No school. Just demonstrations… You had to go and demonstrate against the horrible attacks against these children and kids everywhere.”

Still, despite all the madness, or perhaps in spite of it all, the students clung as much as they could to their vocation. They would loyally go to school, as much as circumstance allowed. But even this effort was frequently quashed. Too often the students would trek to school only to find it closed. They would ask the reasons for the closures. The answers became the soul-grating refrain of their lives.

Because Israeli tanks are getting close to the school and there is no school today.
Because people in our city have been martyred and there are demonstrations so there will be no school today.
Because the tanks have closed off Beit Hanoun and the teachers cannot come from outside. So we’ll have no school today.

It was in this environment that Ahmad and his classmates (the ones that were not killed) came to their 3rd and final year of high school in 2003. Called Tawjihi, the entire future educational and career life of the student hinges on these end-of-the-year cumulative exams.

“Tawjihi,” Ahmad aptly described, “is like a stage between life.”

Tawjihi year began normal enough. Normal in the Palestinian sense of the word. Normal attacks. Normal shootings. Normal curfews. But the last two months before the exams began the Israeli army laid siege on Beit Hanoun. No one could enter. No one could leave. Everyday there were attacks and explosions. Everyday there were injuries and martyrs.

“We didn’t study, actually,” said Ahmad, “nothing. You cannot study and people are dying,” he explained, as if that needed explaining to me, a girl who had never once even seen a dead body.

And all the while their exams were approaching. The first day of examination was the 9th of June 2003. And the Israeli army was still in Beit Hanoun.

“What do we do?” said Ahmad, “we need to take our exams. So we decided to go to school even though the Israeli tanks were at the doors outside the school.”

So they went. Despite the fact that they hadn’t prepared at all due to the siege and the killings. Examinations went on for a month. Everyday the students went. And everyday the Israeli tanks were at the doors of the school.

It was the worst month, Ahmad told me. All your time in high school you wait to prepare and do well on these final examinations, only, in the last moments, to be prevented from studying because your city is under attack.

The soldiers left after 67 days of siege. And then their exam results came in.

“I passed,” said Ahmad, “my average was 83.5. So very good.”

So that was his high school story. I asked how he felt during those years, as I was unable to comprehend how one could live through such a horror and move on.

“It’s mixed feelings,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t know what you are doing or what’s going on around you. Sometimes it’s fear because you are afraid to lose more friends and more people. And because you are afraid about your family. And you are afraid about your future.

“You don’t know what is going on. You just go and study for a life you’ve been dreaming about. But then you find you can’t have it because of obstacles put up by enemies. And these are horrible obstacles. They’re not just any kind of obstacles that anyone could pass.

“It’s war everywhere. And people are dying everywhere. And you just don’t know. Maybe it’s your turn. I mean, we believe in God, and we know everyone is going to die. But when it goes on so continuously, everyday there is attacks, you just keep worrying about it. So the feeling was, what should I be doing? Should I go fight and resist? Should I go study as a way to resist, as a better way of resistance? Should I just stay afraid, doing nothing, with my family?”

“I started to believe that maybe the power of this education that I will have in the future will be more than the power of a stone against a tank. I asked myself a million times, if I should do the same [and take up throwing stones at the Israeli tanks like some of the Palestinian youth]. Even if it was a little thing.

“Some people say it’s stupid, a stone against a tank. But it’s their will and determination [that counts]. It comes from deep inside. That you are not afraid from anything, whatever it may be. You just want to fight, resist, for your rights. Even if it takes your life, takes everything: [None of that matters because] I believe that its my right and I have to do it.”

That is one way to resist. But Ahmad decided to resist through his education.

“I had to take care of my family. Reach what my parents wanted of me. They wanted us to be educated, get a good life, good jobs, have a good place in the community. They wanted us to help them and help people. So that was the final, or not the final, but a decision that I made.

“You are feeling many things, but you have to go on, to keep going. The only way is to just keep fighting, through your education, and your dreams, and your beliefs. That was the feeling.

“But I never felt like I have to give up. I didn’t find a way that told me ‘you just need to give up now.’ And every time a bad thing happened, or a disaster happened, it gave me more power to continue.

“Because this became the normal life for us. The abnormal life for other people became the normal life for us. So we had to figure out another way of life for us. It’s our reality. We had to face reality, however it was. So it helped us to figure out that life, in spite of all this.

“And all the challenges that we are facing, and all the power that is fighting and destroying everything here in Gaza, we still need to keep going. It’s not going to stop us. Because if we stop, it wont help us. [The Israelis] will keep going. Whether or not we stop, they will try to get what they want. So why give them more chance to get what they want? We need also to continue.”

He paused at the end of this grand soliloquy, “How difficult it was,” he said softly.

But the difficulty continued as he moved on to get his BA in information technology at a university in Gaza.

“I faced troubles when I was in high school because of the Intifada but the troubles increased in university,” Ahmad explained, “Beit Hanoun is the most violent area in Gaza Strip because it is very close to the [Israeli] border so there were usual attacks. Every day we had events. People killed. People injured. Homes destroyed. Lands demolished. My father’s farm was bulldozed 4 or 5 times. Most of my relatives’ homes were targeted.

“Most of the semesters I couldn’t attend many lectures because of the usual attacks on my city. There were weekly attacks, sometimes daily attacks so I could not leave home, it was not safe to leave. And I’d also have to stay home when there were other attacks around the city, or around the university.”

Many times he was even able to attend final exams.

“I’d just keep studying throughout the semester and when time for exams come, attacks happen in Beit Hanoun and friends and relatives are killed, [so I‘d miss the exams]. I was supposed graduate in 2008, but I graduated in 2009, one year late because of these attacks. Attacks which have never stopped. Even now. Especially in my city.”

Ahmad was finally set to graduate in December 2008. But he was reminded once again that a Palestinian who dared pursue a good life had heavy taxes to pay.

“The end of December turned out to be the beginning of a war, not the beginning of final exams. It was a big, I don’t know how to describe it,” he said, searching for words to describe the deep personal affront he felt, “it was like, ‘here is a gift for graduation: You wont graduate. Just keep waiting for death.’ ”

His month of exams was exchanged for a month of terror.

“It was 23 days,” he said, “but you can say 23 weeks. 23 months. 23 years. 23 centuries. It never ends. You keep waiting, moment by moment. And you know nothing. You can only feel the darkness. There is no light, for any kind of hope, or safety, or human rights, or whatever. Just 23 days full of darkness. Full of horror. Full of victims. Massacres. Everything bad. I cannot remember words to describe it.”

But those days did pass. And he found enough strength to pick himself up out of the rubble and finish the mission he began. He graduated, at last, this past spring. But not, I cannot help but acknowledge, not without sacrifice and loss that no one should ever have to endure.

“These five years in university, I said and will keep saying forever,” Ahmad concluded, “these five years were the most horrible years of my life. Even though they’re supposed to be the best years, the nice years. The time to go out and discover life. But it wasn’t discovering life. It was discovering disasters, actually, here in Gaza.”

Marryam Haleem is studying Comparative Literature and Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. Her blog is called Muddled Thoughts. Read other articles by Marryam, or visit Marryam's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Leslie Jones said on November 6th, 2009 at 11:03am #

    Good read for those who have lost perspective on how lucky they truly have had it in their lives.
    Let’s hope his future is brighter.

  2. lichen said on November 6th, 2009 at 1:42pm #

    No, actually, the human right’s abuses that students in the rest of the world suffer through are still valid, still worth fighting against and protesting over regardless of the contents of this article; justice must come everywhere, and we will not accept bs about “having it good.”

  3. Ismail Zayid said on November 6th, 2009 at 2:59pm #

    This story reflects well on the difficulties and hazards every Palestinian child encounters, throughout his/her school years, under the brutal and oppressive illegal Israeli occupation they have been subjected to for decades. The stone thrown at a tank does not resolve that conflict but it achieves a satisfaction in an act of resistance to the painful conditions and humiliation these children face in their daily life.

  4. Linda Durham said on November 7th, 2009 at 2:32pm #

    Thank you. So poignant, so beautifully handled. These stories are repeated over and over. I heard similar asccounts when I was in Gaza with Code Pink in March of this year. Sadly, most people who really need to hear and read these stories are unwilling to open their ears, eyes and hearts…

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain said on November 8th, 2009 at 9:59pm #

    The simple result of a deeply racist ideology, allied to unprecedented money power, in action.

  6. Mary Martin said on November 15th, 2009 at 5:47am #

    Thank you Mariam for that insight into a world that I cannot even fathom so unreal to me, my family and the high school students that I teach. Every time someone is exposed and made aware to the incredible human suffering, is hopefully a small step towards peace. Thank you for writing. Please think about coming to Mother Mcauley to speak.

  7. Mary said on November 15th, 2009 at 6:33am #

    Yesterday a 16 year old Palestinian boy was killed by the IDF who had invaded Gaza. The BBC report is biased, confusing and inaccurate. Below it is an e-mail to the BBC from a medialens contributor.

    Page last updated at 13:28 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

    Palestinian killed on Gaza border

    The shooting took place near the Karni crossing point.

    Israeli troops have shot dead a Palestinian man, and wounded another, near a border crossing with Gaza.

    Gazan medics said they retrieved the body of a 16-year-old boy, who they described as an unarmed civilian, near the Karni crossing.

    The Israeli military said they would investigate the incident but the group “appeared to be planting explosives”.

    Clashes have been relatively rare in Gaza since Israel’s military offensive in December and January.

    ‘Hunting birds’

    An Israeli military spokeswoman said one Palestinian had been taken to Israel for treatment. He was in a critical condition. Another three Palestinians had been detained.

    A Palestinian hospital official told the AP news agency that the group were civilians who were hunting birds.

    Gaza has been controlled by Hamas since it ousted Fatah forces in June 2007. The strips borders, airspace and coast line are controlled by Israel, and Egypt along the southern border.

    The territory is under a crippling Israeli blockade under which only a limited number of humanitarian goods are allowed in.
    Posted by Peter Charles on November 15, 2009, 11:50 am, in reply to “Quick email :-)”

    Dear BBC,

    I am writing to complain about this report that appeared on your news website.

    I am quite frankly disgusted how you quickly gloss over the killing and seizing of children. I can only imagine the terror of being shot at, diving for cover while bullets ricochet around me and watching my friends one by one get hit.

    Your headline, “Palestinian killed on Gaza Border”, is an absolute disgrace. It gives the reader a mental image of a Palestinian being shot ‘on’ the border and not in Gaza ‘near’ the border. It therefore gives the impression to some that they were a justified target. It is my belief the BBC does, inadvertently or not, tend to use ambiguous wording (not to be confused with impartial wording) in these cases which have the effect of favouring or excusing Israel.

    After reading other reports from other sources including that of Israeli military sources, it is my understanding that the Israelis entered Gaza to shoot at the Palestinian youths. Your headline would better read, “Israeli troops enter Gaza, Palestinian youth killed”.

    I would thank you to use the correct wording as to the victim’s age. You say a “man” was shot dead but then refer to him as a “boy”. Please could you spend a little more time to ask more questions. A person has died. Is it too much to ask for his name?

    You write, “The Israeli military said they would investigate the incident but the group “appeared to be planting explosives” “. Is it possible for someone at the BBC to ask a basic question and include the answer in the report as to whether or not there was any actual evidence of explosives? I am sure you know that it is simply routine for Israeli troops to shoot at anyone in firing distance of Israel. There are plenty of reports and videos available showing they have an open-fire policy. Here are some videos that took me moments to find.

    Is it possible you could add a mention of Israel’s open-fire policy?

    You write, “Three Palestinians have been detained”, but later you say, “Gaza is controlled by Hamas”. Is “detained” the correct word to use? The Israeli troops entered Gaza after all. I’m sure you would never in a million years describe it as “detained” if a Palestinian entered Israel and did the same. Please can you correct this bias.

    You write, “Clashes have been relatively rare in Gaza since Israel’s military offensive in December and January”. In what sense of the word could this situation be described as a “Clash”? This by all accounts was an attack based on unfounded suspicions. Why do you give the reader that somehow the Palestinians were in some state of conflict with the Israeli troops? Please can you correct this bias.

    I would like to thank you for mentioning this, “The strips borders, airspace and coast line are controlled by Israel, and Egypt along the southern border. The territory is under a crippling Israeli blockade under which only a limited number of humanitarian goods are allowed in.”

    I would like a response to all my points.

  8. Ibrahim said on November 22nd, 2009 at 5:00pm #

    Dear Maryam,

    Me and Tara ar trying to find away to contact you and Ahmad since you left Gaza. Please contact me on my email moc.liamtohnull@iramo_lemiharbi if you get this.