Refaat Alareer, professor at the Islamic University of Gaza and one of the founders of the ‘We Are Not Numbers’ project, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Shujaiya, east of Gaza City, on 6th December to become one of the more than 16,000 civilians killed by Israel in the besieged enclave since 7th October.
Refaat was an educator who taught English literature at Gaza’s Islamic University, which has been completely destroyed. He was also a poet, and author of several books and tens of stories about Gaza. He is known to have inspired countless young people in Gaza to take charge of their narrative and to tell the story of Gaza and Palestine based on their own experiences.
After the destruction of the University, he explained: “Israel wants us to be closed, isolated — to push us to the extreme. It doesn’t want us to be educated. It doesn’t want us to see ourselves as part of a universal struggle against oppression. They don’t want us to be educated or to be educators.”
Alareer could have saved himself had he taken the advice of some of his colleagues. Instead, he decided not to evacuate northern Gaza and stayed to take shelter there with his family. Talking to the London-based pan-Arab news outlet, The New Arab, during the pause in Israeli airstrikes a few days earlier, he described the destruction he had been witnessing.
The 44-year old educator and writer said: “I took a walk in the western parts of Gaza City, and the destruction Israel left behind is World War 2 level of destruction. The wanton attacks are indescribable. It’s like the tanks were playing Pac-Man and deliberately and systematically destroying homes, buildings, businesses, infrastructure, schools, mosques, and trees. “Israel is destroying Gaza in a way that will impact life for decades to come,” Refaat Alareer said.
In one of his last public interviews, Refaat vowed that, if necessary, he would die by the same pen by which he lived: “I’m an academic. Probably the toughest thing I have at home is an Expo marker. But if the Israelis invade, if the paratroopers charge at us, going from door to door, to massacre us, I am going to use that marker to throw it at the Israeli soldiers, even if that is the last thing that I do.”
Refaat was regarded as a model of the resistance which Israel seems determined to destroy. He used to store his students’ papers in his desk at Islamic University’s English Department like tiny treasures. Then, some years back, the Israeli military bombed his department along with the University’s administrative offices, sending those papers up in flames. The office where students met him during office hours was pulverised, and the student library next door was decimated.
At the time, Refaat said that “open-minded Palestinians are more dangerous,” and that was why Israel attacked the Islamic University and other colleges. He had seen his school attacked by Israeli forces before, and he watched it be rebuilt.
Days before his death, Refaat pinned the following poem that he wrote, to the top of his Twitter/X timeline:
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
Main photo: Ashraf Amra / APA images