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16 May 2024
Mario Novelli

Peace Without Justice is an Empty Phrase: In Education and Beyond

In this blogpost published on the occasion of International Day of Living Together in Peace, Mario Novelli, focusing on the case of Gaza, argues that peace without justice is an empty phrase, in education and beyond.

On May 16th every year, by mandate of the United Nations, we celebrate the ‘International Day of Living Together in Peace’, which according to Resolution 72/130, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly on the 8th of December, 2017:

constitutes a means of regularly mobilizing the efforts of the international community to promote peace, tolerance, inclusion, understanding and solidarity, and to express its attachment to the desire to live and act together, united in differences and diversity, in order to build a sustainable world of peace, solidarity and harmony.

Who could disagree? We all surely want to live in a world of peace, tolerance, inclusion, understanding and solidarity. Yet peace, in 2024, feels as far away as some of the darkest days of the Cold War, when fear of nuclear war cast a shadow over the entire planet for decades. As an academic and a teacher, I also ask the question of where does education fit in? Is it the solution, or part of the problem? I want to explore these questions through the current case of Gaza, to reflect on the links between peace (and war) and education, and the role of the International Community in promoting this “sustainable world of peace, solidarity and harmony”.

It has now been more than seven months since the war on Gaza was launched in response to a Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7th, 2024, that killed 1,139 people and took 230 people hostage. In that period nearly 35,000 Palestinians have so far been killed, the vast majority of whom are women and children. The education sector in Gaza and its community have been totally and systematically devastated. As an expert report from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the Commissioner recently noted:

After six months of military assault, more than 5,479 students, 261 teachers and 95 university professors have been killed in Gaza, and over 7,819 students and 756 teachers have been injured – with numbers growing each day. At least 60 per cent of educational facilities, including 13 public libraries, have been damaged or destroyed and at least 625,000 students have no access to education. Another 195 heritage sites, 227 mosques and three churches have also been damaged or destroyed, including the Central Archives of Gaza, containing 150 years of history. Israa University, the last remaining university in Gaza was demolished by the Israeli military on 17 January 2024. Without safe schools, women and girls face additional risks, including gender-based violence. More than 1 million Palestinian children in Gaza are now in need of mental health and psychosocial support and will suffer the trauma of this war throughout their lives” (UNHR, 2024).

They go on to note that “With more than 80% of schools in Gaza damaged or destroyed, it may be reasonable to ask if there is an intentional effort to comprehensively destroy the Palestinian education system, an action known as ‘scholasticide’. Furthermore, of the 158 UNRWA workers that have been killed to date, 75% were educators. The scale of this destruction is almost unimaginable. Having worked for more than two decades as a researcher on the relationship between education and conflict, from Sierra Leone to Lebanon, Colombia and South Sudan, I have never seen such systematic destruction of education systems and communities. How can we ever talk of peace between Palestinians and Israelis after this? I think we can, but it requires a deeper analysis of what peace really means.

For Johan Galtung, the famous peace researcher, who passed away a few months ago, peace required deeper clarification. He often talked of negative and positive peace – the former being the cessation of violence and the latter addressing both the cessation of violence and the underlying drivers that led to that violence. Galtung’s simple distinction forces us to start to ask about root causes and drivers of conflict: those economic, cultural, and political factors that might be less visible than overt violence, but fuel and underpin those outbreaks. In the case of Palestinians, this means addressing the 75-year-long occupation of historic Palestine, the ‘nakba’ and the mass expulsions of 1948, the annexation of the Gaza strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem in 1967, the denial of Palestinian right to return, the widespread subjugation, discrimination and unequal treatment of Palestinians within both Post 1948 and Post 1967 territories, the ongoing settler attacks and theft of land in the West Bank, and the denial of their right – as a people – to self-determination. Until these issues are addressed, peace just becomes a byword for pacification, until the next episode of violence and counter-violence erupts. Phrased in a slightly different way: peace without justice is just repression by other means.

In order to achieve this peace with justice, the Palestinian movement need a counterpart to negotiate with. This is no easy task with a country that is the biggest recipient of US military aid in the world. Palestinians have been subjugated, maligned, and dispossessed for decades. They have tried everything, from armed struggle to boycotts, peaceful marches to intifadas, but little has borne fruit. The Oslo Accords, signed in both, 1992 (1) and 1993 (2), offered a glimmer of hope, but hindsight evidences that it failed to deliver on its aspirations, and even before the ink had dried, the Israeli state began reneging and rewriting its commitments.

I experienced the initial optimism of the Post-Oslo period in Gaza, when I witnessed the first Palestinian elections in 1996. I saw Palestinians queuing up as far as the eye could see to vote. I experienced their enthusiasm and was enchanted by their kindness and hospitality. I returned later that year and worked for several months for the British Council, seconded to UNRWA. Education was something that Palestinians took so seriously, seeing it as a vehicle for both personal and national liberation, a means to a brighter future.

That optimism seems so distant today, nearly three decades later, but even then the signs that all was not well with Oslo were evident, as Israel restricted and rescinded any notion of Palestinian sovereignty. Peace, very quickly, became pacification, and the PLO more a tool of security control of its own population, than a national government or a means to liberation. Last summer I returned to Palestine, not to Gaza (which was sealed off to visitors), but to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, for a Higher Education Solidarity visit to build links between UK and Palestinian Universities. It was both an inspiring and painful trip. Inspiring to meet with Palestinian academics and students and to learn of their struggles and resistance to occupation; painful to witness the multiple checkpoints, hear horrifying testimony of Israeli state and settler attacks and learn of the complex permit system that institutionalises an apartheid system across the occupied Palestinian Territories and serves to dehumanise the Palestinian population daily.

I have worked on the education/conflict/peace relationship for a long time, and I have become weary of listening to the pedagogues of peace tell us about this and that educational intervention – whether it be psychosocial solutions, curriculum and textbook reforms or peace education interventions. They all seem to begin under the same premise: that Palestinians need to adapt, to become more resilient, to accept, to be more peaceful; whilst all the time Palestinian rights get further and further eroded. In the upside-down world of Western-led morality, victims require behaviour modification, whilst perpetrators can carry on as normal, and often with our financial and political support.

So what is to be done? For one example, I think we need look no further than the powerful acts of solidarity coming out of universities around the world as I write. Young people assuming global responsibility for the injustice done to Palestinians, actively deploying modes of non-violent direct action, and forcing those with power to sit up and take notice. Through debate and direct action, marches, protests and encampments, young people are showing us a way forward. Peace can only come with justice, and justice will only be achieved through social struggle, in education and beyond. On ‘International Day of Living Together in Peace’ let us all commit to joining that movement for peace with justice, for Palestine, and for all of us.

The Author:

Mario Novelli is Professor in the Political Economy of Education, University of Sussex, UK and Georg Arnhold Senior Fellow 2024.


Views expressed on the NORRAG blog are those of the contributors. They do not necessarily represent the views of NORRAG as an organisation or the wider NORRAG membership. NORRAG welcomes responses from education stakeholders with diverse views either through the comments section or through a post of their own.

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