Back to school sparks fear, doubts for Gaza children

Adel Zaanoun
AFP
Palestinians displaced by Israeli bombardments on the Gaza Strip talk in the corridor of a United Nations school that has been turned into a temporary shelter, on August 8, 2014, in Gaza City
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Palestinians displaced by Israeli bombardments on the Gaza Strip talk in the corridor of a United Nations school that has been turned into a temporary shelter, on August 8, 2014, in Gaza City (AFP Photo/Roberto Schmidt)

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Eight-year-old Malak is scared. With no end in sight to the six-week war between Israel and Hamas, she doesn't want to go back to school.

"I'm frightened of going to school and that they'll start bombing," she admits, full of dread.

"My friends were killed, my house was destroyed," says the little girl with large, sad green eyes.

The conflict, which began on July 8, has killed at least 2,038 Palestinians -- 72 percent of them civilians according to the United Nations.

It has also left much of Gaza in ruins, with at least 230 schools damaged by air strikes or tank shelling -- 140 government schools and 90 UN-run schools, according to UN figures correct as of August 15.

At least 25 of them have been so severely damaged that they can no longer be used. Among those still standing, scores have been turned into refugee camps for nearly quarter of a million displaced people.

The Palestinian education ministry says dozens of students and at least 20 teachers have been killed.

Malak's older sister, Ayat, 11, puts on a braver face.

"We will go back to school and we will learn even if it is on the rubble, if they don't rebuild them, and even if they kill us all!"

Ordinarily, the new school year in Gaza should begin on August 24, but authorities have said that term will not resume until at least two weeks into a durable ceasefire.

But with the collapse of truce negotiations in Cairo on Tuesday and the resulting surge in violence, there appears to be little end in sight.

Israeli legal charity Gisha, which works to improve freedom of movement and access for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, says that even before the war, Gaza needed another 259 schools to cater for its population of 1.8 million, half of which is under the age of 18.

Gaza has been languishing under an Israel blockade since 2006, and its restrictions on the entry of construction materials have not helped.

Even before the current conflict, classes were taught in two, sometimes three shifts.

But since the fighting erupted, the situation has only deteriorated.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) teaches 238,000 children at 246 schools across Gaza.

"Fifty-seven of them have been damaged and several of them will need to be completely rebuilt," says UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna.

- 'Scared all the time' -

The education ministry says it needs at least $10.4 million to repair war damage to education infrastructure.

A solution also needs to be found for around 100,000 Gazans whose homes have been destroyed and are currently staying at the schools.

If they don't find somewhere else to live, it is likely to further delay the resumption of the school term.

Tayssir, 11, stares at the damaged remains of his school, wondering what the future holds for his education.

"I've studied here since first grade and now I don't know where I'm going," he says.

"God curse the Jews who destroyed our schools!"

The school he goes to with 2,000 other little Palestinians was hit by two missiles when Israeli jets destroyed an adjacent home belonging to a member of Islamic Jihad.

The Israeli bombardment has blown out school walls and explosions have shattered classroom windows across the enclave sandwiched between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

Ahmed, 37, says his six children are "scared all the time."

"I don't see how I can send them to study again, friends of theirs have died others are mutilated: how can the children stand all the destruction and the deaths that they see?" he says.