Thousands of Palestinian students recently graduated in Gaza. Dressed in graduation thobes, they sang graduation songs and waved their certificates. But for many, graduation was not what it should have been. In the latest Israeli attacks on Gaza, 54 school and university students were killed. For three Palestinian students Shaima, Zainab, Saqr and their families, graduation was a time of unimaginable tragedy.
Earlier this year, Shaima Abu Al-Ouf was studying Dentistry at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. As her course came to an end, 20-year-old Shaima became engaged to Anas. Their wedding was to be celebrated after Eid, which Muslims celebrate for three consecutive days. Shaima’s father Alaa Abu Al-Ouf says that one of Shaima’s biggest dreams was to open her own dental clinic.
But on 16th May 2021, Shaima’s hopes and dreams were shattered in the Al Wehda Street massacre, an attack by Israel on Palestinian civilians, for which Amnesty International says Israel must be investigated for war crimes. Shaima spent 10 hours under the rubble alongside 14 members of her family during the night. By the next morning, Shaima had lost her life.
In honour of this, Shaima’s father was issued an honourary graduation certificate from Al-Azhar University. Although Shaima’s seat at the ceremony was empty, her photograph lit up the hall for all to see.
The loss of Shaima is a deep tragedy. Her father has warned that “more fathers will lose their children, more kids will rise up without fathers, and more families will be totally erased as long as Israel exists on our land…the world must boycott Israel economically and militarily… it is a real threat to humanity.”
One of Shaima’s closest neighbours was Zainab Al-Qulaq, who studied English at the Islamic University in Gaza. On 16th May, 22-year-old Zainab lost 22 members of her family in the Al-Wehda Street massacre. 46 Palestinians were killed by Israel, including 8 children.
As Zainab was unable to attend her graduation, the Islamic University held a special ceremony at her home. At the ceremony, Zainab explained “I was unable to participate at the university ceremony because mom, my only sister, and my two brothers were not there to celebrate my success. It was impossible to celebrate the graduation without mom Amal – she was the most excited about my graduation since she had been staying up long nights with me”. Zainab’s mother Amal Al-Tatar, 42 years old, had not achieved a university education herself but had been very excited to see Zainab graduate. Zainab’s 25-year-old brother Taher was also motivated by Amal. He graduated in 2020.
Amal had planned a graduation party with a bouquet of roses and many gifts for Zainab – a day of family joy. Yet these plans were taken away from her. Amal, Taher, and other family members Ahmed and Hana, were killed by Israel. They did not live to see Zainab graduate. Zainab now faces an uncertain future without 22 members of her family.
Still questioning the injustice, Zainab says this crime by Israel cannot be justified: “We are not terrorists, and most of those killed were scholars.”
Saqr Al-Hayya, 27 years old, was an ambitious young man who planned to do a PhD in Malaysia after graduating. His mother Afaf was hoping to get him married after Eid and she had been preparing his apartment for him, although learning was his priority.
But like Shaima, Saqr never attended his graduation or moved into his apartment. On 17th May the dreams of Saqr and his mother were destroyed when Israel bombarded their house in Al-Shejaiya, east of Gaza City. Saqr lost his life.
Remembering her husband who was killed by Israel when Saqr was only 12 years old, Afaf says “I wished heartily to see Saqr standing on the graduation stage. I dedicated my life to provide him with whatever he wanted in the absence of his father.”
In the words of Zainab, the individuals killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza are not just numbers: “each one of them has left dreams, friends and families behind”.
Shaima’s fiancé Anas, her father Alaa, Saqr’s mother Afaf, and Zainab are all left with gaping holes in their lives that will never be filled.
The hopes and dreams of Shaima, Saqr and 52 other students in Gaza have been destroyed forever by Israeli war crimes.