Scholar and policy analyst Jehad Abusalim remembers his friend Refaat Alareer, the acclaimed Palestinian academic and activist who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City earlier this week. “Refaat Alareer was a towering figure in Palestinian society, especially in Gaza,” who used education and “language as a weapon against oppression,” says Abusalim, who speaks about the widespread destruction of schools and educators in Gaza by Israel’s renewed bombardment, siege and invasion. “The tragedy that has befallen the academic, scholarly and intellectual community in Gaza and in Palestine is unprecedented. Israel is destroying the foundations of society in the Gaza Strip.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Jehad Abusalim, scholar and policy analyst from Gaza, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund. He was a student and close friend of Refaat Alareer.
Jehad, thank you so much for joining us. Our deepest condolences on the loss of your friend, who you’ve known for some 17, 18 years. Can you talk about how you learned of Refaat’s death, and tell us the story of his life?
JEHAD ABUSALIM: Thank you for having me.
I was at work when my wife called me asking me if I heard something about Refaat and if the news about him were true. I opened my phone. I looked at my social media apps, and that was the moment I realized that he was gone.
Refaat Alareer was a towering figure in Palestinian society, especially in Gaza. He transcended the role of a mere educator and a teacher. He was a mentor, a beacon of wisdom and guidance, a loving father and husband, and a compassionate son. Refaat’s presence enriched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of students. His influence extended far beyond the confines of the classroom. Refaat wasn’t just a teacher. He was a friend, a confidant. He was someone who loved to support his students and who believed strongly in the potential of each student, offering them personal advice and guidance. Refaat will be missed.
It is really hard to sum up Refaat’s story in a few words. But one thing I can say, Amy, is that Refaat’s life was not without its share of many, many challenges. Despite personal tragedies and the harsh realities of life in Gaza, Refaat remained unwavering, using his pen and his voice to fight back and to write back. His resilience was an inspiration to us all, his students and friends and members of the cultural, intellectual and literary community in Gaza. In a place like Gaza, where educational resources are scarce, Refaat’s mastery of the English language was more than a skill. It was a mission. He saw English as a key, a tool to liberation and a means to defy the siege and intellectual and academic restrictions that Israel imposed on Gaza and other Palestinian communities. So, for him, his teaching wasn’t just about imparting knowledge or conducting exams. It was about empowerment, about using language as a weapon against oppression.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know, Jehad, how he was killed?
JEHAD ABUSALIM: From what we hear in the media and based on reports by his friends, neighbors, he was sheltering at a school, and he received a phone call from the Israeli intelligence informing him that his location — that they located his place, that they identified his location. And whether this was a call from an official arm of the Israeli intelligence or a mere troll, we don’t know. He decided that it’s probably not safe for him to remain at the school where he was sheltering, so he went probably to see family — his sister, his brother. And at that moment, the place where he was was bombed, which led to killing him, his sister, his brother and his four nieces.
Many of the details remain unknown, given the fact that the part of Gaza where he was killed, in Shuja’iyya, is cut off from the rest of the Gaza Strip. It is under heavy bombardment. And it is the site of many atrocities that are still being committed by Israeli forces. So, without having journalists and investigators and workers with international organizations access these areas, we can’t really fully grasp all the details of Refaat’s death, and, of course, the tragedies that have befell many, many other Palestinians there.
AMY GOODMAN: Jehad Abusalim, he taught at Islamic University, is that right? You know, before the well-known human rights attorney Raji Sourani ultimately left Gaza, we were interviewing him at his home in Gaza City, and the house shook. And we learned then that Islamic University had been hit. Now, in the last days, we’ve learned that the president of Islamic University was killed with his family, professor Sofyan Taya. That occurred just recently. He was a well-known mathematician and physicist. Did you know him?
JEHAD ABUSALIM: I did not know Professor Taya. But as someone who went to both Al-Azhar University in Gaza, which was destroyed, the Islamic University in Gaza, which was destroyed, I can tell you that the scale of loss, the tragedy that has befallen the academic, scholarly and intellectual community in Gaza and in Palestine, is unprecedented. Israel is destroying the foundations of society in the Gaza Strip. Israel is systematically destroying our educational system, our cultural institutions. And today we saw footage of the Grand Omari Mosque in Gaza, a structure that dates back to thousands of years, also in ruins. This is a genocidal war of erasure, of uprooting and of mass destruction.
We mourn our teachers, our educators, our doctors, our nurses, our friends, our neighbors. And we also are mourning the loss of a society as we knew it, that no longer exists. And this is all happening while the world is watching, leaving Palestinians in Gaza endure one of the largest bombardment campaigns in the 21st century. How is this acceptable? How is this allowed to happen?
AMY GOODMAN: Jehad Abusalim, Refaat edited two volumes. Can you talk about those books, like Gaza Writes Back? He was a poet, a writer, an author, an activist.
JEHAD ABUSALIM: In Gaza Writes Back, Refaat says — and I quote — “Writing is a testimony, a memory that outlives any human experience, and an obligation to communicate with ourselves and the world. We lived for a reason, to tell the tales of loss, of survival, and of hope,” end-quote.
Refaat Alareer understood the power of English. He understood that in a place like Gaza, where educational resources are scarce and where educational institutions are cut off from the rest of the world, he realized that his mastery of the English language was more than a skill. It was a mission. So he saw English as a key to liberation, a means to defy the siege and the intellectual and academic blockade that Israel has imposed and continues to impose in Gaza. And as I said, Refaat’s teaching wasn’t just about imparting knowledge. It was about empowerment and about using language as a weapon against oppression.
So, when Refaat was teaching those hundreds and thousands of students, including myself, he said to us that we are living in a world that is refusing to hear us, is refusing to listen to us and is refusing to listen to our stories. And he warned — he warned that the world will continue to perceive Palestinians as numbers and to perceive their pain as abstract statistics mentioned in the reports of human rights organizations that come out every year and then are rendered unimportant. So he told us that we have to write our stories, we have to talk about our stories, and we have to make sure that our stories are communicated in every language and in every way possible.
AMY GOODMAN: Jehad, I’m wondering if, as we wrap up, you can read the poem that Refaat had pinned to his Twitter page, the top, “If I Must Die.”
JEHAD ABUSALIM: I will, and it’s a great honor to do so. Refaat wrote:
If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself—
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale.
AMY GOODMAN: Jehad Abusalim, I want to thank you for being with us. Again, deepest condolences on the loss of your friend and mentor. Jehad is a scholar and policy analyst from Gaza, the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund. Refaat Alareer was the editor of two volumes, Gaza Unsilenced and Gaza Writes Back. We’ll also link to his op-ed piece in The New York Times he wrote several years ago.