GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian Al-Azhar Institute, founded in 1955, is reeling from a financial crisis that could close it down. The institute has seen a 50% drop in student enrollment, from 2,000 students in the 1990s to 1,000 today.
The institute was one of the first Palestinian educational institutions in the Gaza Strip to offer religious and academic education concurrently. It provides classes from elementary to university levels and abides by the same educational policies, terms of acceptance, curriculum, examination system and certification process adopted by Al-Azhar in Egypt. The institute offers several specialized religious courses in two preparatory and secondary schools free of charge.
The Egyptian administration that ruled Gaza in the 1950s allocated approximately 108 acres for the institute's campus. Only 8 acres are left unused, with the largest part of the land dedicated to the Islamic University in Gaza (1979) and Al-Azhar University in Gaza (1992).
Imad Hamattu, dean of the institute in Palestine, told Al-Monitor the financial crisis is the most important challenge the institute faces today. Without an infusion of funds, the institute may close. Hamattu said the institute is calling on several potential local and Arab sources, including the office of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as officials in Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.
To fund operations, the institute currently has only 6,000 shekels (about $1,600), which well-off Palestinians in Gaza donated during the last academic term. Hamattu said the institute needs an estimated $20,000 a month for operations; most of that would be used to transport students to and from the institute. Meanwhile, the accumulated debt it owes to transportation companies and contractual employees exceeds 1 million shekels ($266,000).
The institute needs more teachers but can't afford to hire them, Hamattu said. Many contractual employees haven't been paid for three months. Some of the aging buildings risk falling into decay because the institute can't pay for their upkeep. The school also needs new or restored furniture, and the classrooms haven't been painted for many years.
Institute director Jihad Assaf told Al-Monitor, “A great number of students were enrolled in the institute in the 1990s, but this number started to decline in the past 10 years for financial reasons." Also contributing to the shortfall, Assaf said, were actions taken by the former dean, Yusuf Salameh.
"Salameh closed in mid-2016 some scientific sections in the secondary school, for reasons he chose not to disclose to the institute’s board of directors. He also issued a decision to raise the students' admission grade average to a minimum of 85% before it returned to 75% early this year,” Assaf said.
Assaf pointed out that the institute's 1,000 students are about 70% men and 30% women. The curriculum combines religious study (the Quran and the hadith) and academic study (biology, chemistry and mathematics).
Each semester, Al-Azhar in Cairo sends textbooks, exams and certificates to the Gaza institute, but otherwise does not fund the institute in Gaza. The Palestinian Ministry of Finance is supposed to pay the salaries of the 115 employees, based on a prior agreement between Egypt’s Al-Azhar and the PA in 1994.
Mohammed Debabeche told Al-Monitor he joined the institute to pursue religious studies and to take advantage of scholarships provided for some students with a grade average of at least 65% at the secondary level who want to attend university once they finish their studies at the institute.
Debabeche said that many of his friends have refused to join the institute because of the decline in financial and academic scholarships, which can include money for traveling to complete their university studies at Al-Azhar University in Egypt. Also, students face hardships getting through the Gaza border crossings.
Al-Azhar in Cairo once offered 30 scholarships per year to students seeking to continue their studies in various majors. But those scholarships have stalled since the internal Palestinian division in 2007 and the closure of the Rafah border crossing for long periods over the year.
Youssef Hamid stressed to Al-Monitor that he joined the institute primarily because it is the only one in Gaza specialized in religious studies.
He explained that the heavy course load at the institute (16 academic subjects per year, compared with eight in public schools) is one reason some students don't enroll and others drop out after just a semester.
Hamid called on Abbas to help the institute overcome the financial crisis. The institute’s students and academics hope the administration's efforts bear fruit, in light of the Gaza Strip’s need for specialized religious institutes and schools.
Hamattu said he expected a meeting with Abbas to be held soon — without specifying when — in the hope of receiving money for student grants and to resolve the institute's financial woes before it is forced to close its doors.