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Just 100 miles separate the Technion and the Islamic University of Gaza, each striving in its own way to prepare 21st century engineers. Yet decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians leave a wide gulf between the two schools, particularly in their graduates’ future prospects.


GAZA CITY — Late spring 2008 found Gaza in a wretched state. The U.S. State Department warned Americans that the territory was so violent they should stay out or “leave immediately.” With departures and trade restricted by Israel, much of Gaza’s Palestinian population lived on donated food amid fuel shortages, rampant unemployment, frequent power cuts and smoking piles of uncollected trash. Overloaded systems leaked raw and partially treated sewage onto the beach and into the Mediterranean.

None of this stopped the Islamic University of Gaza’s engineering faculty from hosting an “international conference” on architectural preservation. A three-man French delegation came, and enough people participated by videoconference from outside Gaza for the event to live up to its billing. Meanwhile, the faculty pressed ahead with plans for a new department — environmental engineering — to complement its civil, electrical, computer, industrial and architectural engineering studies and four research centers.

If there is something audacious about how this school keeps striving while much of Gaza grinds to a halt, it’s also routine. Founded in 1978 as the first university in Gaza, IUG has weathered two mass uprisings and attendant military retaliation by Israel; the turbulent regime led by Yasser Arafat; and repeated closure of Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt, cutting off commerce, access to jobs and travel. A football field and student council building were struck by Israeli fire in the summer of 2006. The next year brought exchanges of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades between warring Palestinian factions.

A narrow coastal strip twice the size of Washington, D.C., Gaza was a pastoral backwater before the 1948 war, when it drew in Arab refugees fleeing or driven from the newly declared state of Israel. In the decades since, controlled first by Egypt, then by the Israeli military and later by the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority, Gaza has become one of the most congested places on Earth, its refugee tent cities swollen into permanent cement-block slums. Ill-prepared for self-rule following Israel’s full withdrawal in 2005, Gaza became the scene of a violent power struggle that ended with the takeover of the strip by the Islamic movement Hamas in 2007.

Yet by exam time last May, save for one charred building, IUG was back to normal, a smooth-running, even attractive, oasis of calm and purpose. “This is our life,” says Adnan Enshassi, IUG’s engineering dean. “So we are working more than before to prove to the world we are living, we are working, this is our people, we have to serve our community.” The contrast with the neglect elsewhere in Gaza reflects the importance that Palestinians, stripped of land and livelihoods by conflict, attach to education as a means of upward mobility. “Here we are a very poor area. Unless you are educated, you have difficulty to survive,” says IUG President Kamalain Shaath. With study abroad limited by travel restrictions and post 9-11 delays in obtaining visas to the United States, Palestinians have been diligent in developing their own higher education system. IUG, which now has 10 faculties and 20,000 students, is among 11 universities serving a population with one of the highest adult literacy rates in the Arab world.


Peter Gubser, former president of American Near East Refugee Aid, a nonprofit group that runs a number of development and educational programs for Palestinians, ranks IUG as the best of Gaza’s three universities but says it doesn’t match Birzeit University in the more prosperous West Bank, or al Quds University in East Jerusalem. Michael Tomlan, an architectural preservation expert at Cornell University, who has dealt from afar with IUG faculty, comments, “My impression of the university is that the people there are doing the best they can.”

IUG faculty acknowledge the shortcomings. Mohammed Hussein, associate dean of engineering for research and curriculum development, notes almost with a tone of apology that the engineering faculty is not yet ABET-accredited. A colleague admits a “problem” in the relatively few women — 30 percent — in civil engineering.

Yet Hussein, who obtained his Ph.D. from Texas A&M, insists, “Our graduates can compete with any colleagues around the world. How do we know this? Two things: When they work outside Gaza, in the United Arab Emirates or any country, they can perform very well. . . .when they go for a Ph.D. or master’s degree, they have an easy transition.” An IUG student, he noted proudly, was accepted into Google’s 2008 Summer of Code, an annual software coding project.

This being Gaza, where more than half the population is impoverished, IUG operates on a shoestring. Its $20 million operating budget comes to $1,000 per student, each of whom pays less than that in tuition. President Shaath himself makes $2,000 a month, presiding over a faculty where the starting salary is $1,200 a month. Yet the university roster is studded with Ph.D.’s earned in Europe, the United States and Asia. Over the years, the school has drawn substantial support from donors, including oil-rich Persian Gulf states, Europe, Japan and the Palestine Islamic Bank, for scholarships, student loans, buildings and other facilities. In 2005, Intel agreed to provide a $1 million information technology “center of excellence” at IUG, part of the semi-conductor firm’s Digital Transformation Initiative for the Middle East.


Islamic University students prepare for examsThe Intel project remains incomplete because of a dearth of cement and other building materials in Gaza. But IUG makes heavy use of available technology to compensate for the closed borders — imposed by Israel following the 2007 Hamas takeover and repeated Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli communities surrounding Gaza. The school is collaborating with Universiti Sains Malaysia on a master’s curriculum in architectural engineering. It gets compact discs of conference proceedings from abroad. It started experimenting with e-learning in 1999, and faculty members got added training in a 2004 pilot project with Britain‘s Middlesex University that won an “e-tutor of the year” award from the Times Higher Education Supplement. Recently, IUG expanded its e-learning potential by signing on to participate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare.

“We feel the Internet is a gift from God,” says Muhammed Hussein, who in June participated by videoconference at an e-learning conference in Bahrain.
IUG’s attempt to break out of its isolation is complicated by its reputation as a stronghold of support for Hamas, tagged by the United States, Europe and Israel as a terror organization. Last summer, three Fulbright scholars from IUG were barred from graduate engineering studies in the United States after Israel persuaded the U.S. State Department that they might pose a security risk. Neither Israeli nor U.S. officials have made public any evidence against the three, whose case became a cause célèbre among Fulbright alumni. An earlier audit of U.S. Agency for International Development grants turned up no links to terrorism among IUG recipients.

Yet the IUG pedigree of Hamas leaders is undeniable. Ismail Abu Shanab taught engineering at IUG until he was killed in an Israeli attack in 2003. Fluent in English, with a master’s degree from Colorado State University, he had served as a Hamas spokesman with the foreign press and was considered a relative moderate within the group. Other IUG alumni include both Gaza’s top Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and his arch-foe from the competing political party Fatah, former security chief Mohammed Dahlan.

University officials insist the school has no official alignment with any political faction. What is clear is that IUG is Muslim and conservative — from its prominently sited mosque to a Holy Koran Web site and the separate entrances, classes and outdoor recreation areas for men and women. IUG grew out of an institute linked to Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the venerable seat of Islamic learning. All undergraduates must take more than 20 hours of Islamic studies.

As head of the engineering school, begun in 1992, Enshassi personifies IUG’s mix of piety and digital-age drive. A lingering shadow on his forehead attests to his ritual of pressing to the floor in prayer several times each day. His work habits are equally dutiful. As a civil engineer specializing in project management, with a Ph.D. from Liverpool University, Enshassi was a Fulbright scholar at Clemson University and is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Often using Gaza as a laboratory, he has authored or collaborated on some 80 research publications.

Like Enshassi, faculty here eagerly collaborate with overseas colleagues and have published in a number of scholarly journals. The department of computer and electrical engineering alone includes 11 Ph.D.s, most earned in the United States and Europe. A recent addition is assistant professor and wireless communications specialist Fady El-Nahal of Cambridge University, who is president of the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Palestine. “I decided to teach in Palestine because it is my homeland and I had been away for almost five years, so I felt it is time to go home,” he says.

Their research and teaching explore engineering solutions to Gaza’s myriad problems. One example is a prizewinning electrical engineering senior project, for which five students — all women — used Siemens-manufactured SIMATIC WinCC software to design a safer, more efficient delivery of residential electrical current. Another is a tiny World Bank-subsidized incubator that aspires to support high-tech entrepreneurs.

Abdel Majid Nassar, an assistant professor of environmental engineering, tackled what IUG President Shaath, himself a civil engineer, describes as Gaza’s most urgent technical problem: sewage disposal. After a three-year study conducted with colleagues in Gaza and the U.K, he proposed a relatively low-cost sewage treatment in the form of shallow pools planted with common reeds that absorb water from sludge and change bio-solids into usable fertilizer.

Moving Beyond the Barriers

Last spring’s IUG conference showcased an unusual aspect of the engineering program, the Center for Architectural Heritage. Led by architectural engineering instructor Ahmed Salama Muhaisen, the center is documenting, cleaning and restoring historic buildings in Gaza’s old city, including a centuries-old public bath, trash-strewn houses in advanced states of disrepair and a church and mosque nestled side by side. A specialist in energy-saving construction, Muhaisen marvels at how the yard-thick stone walls of the aged shrines keep interiors cool despite scorching summer heat.

The architectural engineering department boasts another unusual feature. In the male-dominated world of engineering, its enrollment is more than half women. “When I was a child, I dreamed of having people call me ‘engineer,’” says 2004 graduate Doaa’ Hitta. After specialized training in Egypt, Hitta joined the architectural history project, which has become her passion: “Gazan people need to know more about their cultural heritage and to focus on the importance of heritage.”

While the center uncovers Gaza’s past, the new environmental engineering department looks forward and far afield at congested megacities, climate change and vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure. Its instructors aim to foster teamwork among their students, whose 95 compulsory credit hours will include organic chemistry, environmental chemistry, applied and fluid mechanics and environmental microbiology.

Improvement is an ongoing concern. In a 2004 exercise in institutional self-evaluation, Enshassi and a local businessman surveyed 42 employers of recent IUG civil engineering graduates. The results, published in the European Journal of Engineering Education, were mixed: Graduates scored highest in ethics, which the authors attributed to the school’s religious foundation; were well-grounded in science; and were adept at new technology. But they fared less well in practical aspects of engineering, including oral presentations, technical document preparation and English-language competence.

At least those graduates found jobs. The outlook for current graduates is bleak. With Gaza’s economy collapsing, their best immediate prospect lies in the United Arab Emirates’ dynamic building boom, if they can manage to exit Gaza.

“I think under this situation in Gaza, there is no future for anything. It is not hopeless thinking, but this is what we live,” says recent computer engineering graduate Sally Abdullah, who plans to further her studies abroad.

Yet all around IUG now lies evidence — from a wrecked airport and unbuilt seaport to idle factories and contaminated water sources — of Gaza’s desperate need for engineers.

All these problems would be easier to solve if the political, psychological and physical barriers between Israel and the Palestinians were dismantled. The two nations could learn something from their engineering educators, who are moving beyond such obstacles. Adnan Enshassi, for one, has already won acceptance from a surprising quarter. “He’s a good colleague of mine,” remarks Arnon Bentur, dean of civil and environmental engineering at the Technion, Israel’s renowned science and technology school. In a recent e-mail between the two deans, Bentur expressed hope that Enshassi would attend next September’s conference in Haifa, Israel, of the International Union of Laboratories and Experts in Construction Materials.

Inshallah, as they say in Gaza — God willing.

“Here we are a very poor area. Unless you are educated, you have difficulty to survive.”
—Kamalain Shaath, president, Islamic University of Gaza



Mark Matthews is the managing editor of Prism.




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