Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Ties to Hamas Raise Questions About the Role of Bombed University in Gaza

Wednesday, January 7, 2009



Israel's bombing last week of three buildings at the Islamic University of Gaza has provoked outrage among many academics.

Israeli officials and security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insist that the university, which makes no secret of its close ties to Hamas, also serves as an operational center for the Hamas terrorist wing, the Qassam Brigades, making it a legitimate military target. (Mr. Abbas leads the Fatah movement, which has had its own struggles with Hamas in recent years.)

But students and lecturers flatly deny that the university is involved in military activities, arguing that it turns out 3,000 graduates each year from its 10 schools, including those in engineering and Islamic law.

While the university has acquired an international reputation in some fields and even produced Fulbright scholars, its close ties with Hamas complicate its pure academic status. Some faculty members, including one who was killed by Israeli forces last week, publicly acknowledge their activities in the Qassam Brigades. Attacks by Israel on other civilian targets last week in Gaza, including mosques, were based on intelligence linking them to weapons—reports that proved to be accurate.

On December 29, Israeli aircraft attacked the university's campus in Gaza City with at least six bombs, destroying a science-laboratory block and severely damaging a classroom building for women (The Chronicle, December 29, 2008). There were no casualties because the campus had already been evacuated. Early the following day, warplanes returned and destroyed another classroom building.

Buildings on the nearby campuses of Al-Quds University and Al-Aqsa University were also damaged in airstrikes last week, but those damages appeared to have resulted from attacks on adjacent targets, not from direct strikes.

Israel has defended its attacks as designed to protect its citizens from rockets fired from Gaza. An Israeli army spokeswoman said last week the Islamic University housed laboratories that were used to develop weapons for Hamas, as well as weapons-storage facilities. "The development of these weapons took place under the auspices of senior lecturers who are activists in Hamas," the spokeswoman said.

But lecturers on the campus disputed those allegations.

Zohair Abu Shaban, an engineering graduate and a junior lecturer at the university, said that in his five years as a student there, he had "never, ever witnessed anything from the mentioned accusation."

Mr. Abu Shaban, whose Fulbright scholarship was suspended last year, in part because of his affiliation with the university, said he had never even heard of a weapons-research center there.

Close Ties to Hamas Leadership

The Islamic University was established in 1978 by the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. It has emerged as a training ground for the political and spiritual leadership of Hamas.

Many Hamas leaders who are also academics have taught or worked at the university. They include the group's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the late Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, also assassinated by Israel in 2004. Sixteen of the Hamas members who were elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 teach at the university.

Neither faculty members nor students, some of whom are Christian, are required to swear affiliation to Hamas. But one journalism graduate told the Arab-media Web site last June that she felt discriminated against because she had refused to join an Islamic association that offered certain academic "incentives" to its members.

"They have a better share of everything, including the scholarships and loans granted to students who are unable to afford their tuition fees," she said. The university's affiliation with Hamas is "a known fact," she said, adding that "many Hamas leaders teach or are employed there."

But others say the university's affiliation with Hamas does not mean that it is directly involved in military activities.

Ahmad Albur'y, who teaches English at the university, said he was "shocked" by last week's bombing.

"Where are the corpses of Hamas people at the shelled university?" he demanded. "Where are the weapons that Israel claims have been stockpiled in the university? If Israel is right about its claims, why does it prevent foreign journalists from entering Gaza under this situation?"

"It seems to me that what Israel is doing is systematic war that aims at destroying the Palestinian people and all their institutions," he said.

Reporters in Gaza who tried to enter the campus's wrecked buildings on behalf of The Chronicle were turned back by armed Hamas guards posted there to prevent looting.

Targeted Before

This is not the first time that the Islamic University has been accused of aiding Hamas militarily.

In February 2007, at the height of tension between Hamas and Fatah, troops loyal to Mr. Abbas stormed the university and confiscated weapons and ammunition. Palestinian TV showed footage of dozens of grenade launchers, rockets, and assault rifles, as well as thousands of bullets, that Fatah officials said were found inside the university (The Chronicle, February 5, 2007).

In May 2007, the university became a key military stronghold as Hamas prepared to seize power from Mr. Abbas in Gaza. Hamas militiamen fired rockets and automatic weapons from the campus at forces loyal to Mr. Abbas.

In 2007, Abu Abdullah, described as a Hamas military leader, told the WorldNetDaily, a conservative Web site, that the Islamic University was regularly used by Hamas to support "resistance activities."

"It is no secret that we utilize all tools at our disposal, including our fighters at Islamic University, in preparations to fight the Zionists," he said.

At least one prominent member of the university's faculty was a Hamas terrorist. Last week an Israeli bombing raid killed Nizar Rayyan, an Islamic-law professor, along with his four wives and seven of his children. Sheikh Rayyan was a senior commander of the Qassam Brigades who served as a mentor to suicide bombers and sent his own son on a suicide mission in 2001.

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