Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian pupils in Gaza are heading back to school on 14 September keen to start a delayed new academic year, and all too aware of the impact of the recent conflict.
For Karam Bedwan, 13, from the Zeitoun Area in Eastern Gaza City, schools have been a key part of the violence. With his family he took shelter in an UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school during the bombing, which destroyed the school he had been attending.
“This was a school and now it is gone,” he told IRIN as he toured his former school with his cousins. In the school yard he came across one of his paintings in the rubble, picking it up to take home. “It is shocking. Where are we going to study now? And why did they bomb it?”
Israel’s military-advocate general has reportedly opened five criminal investigations into actions by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the recent conflict. During the crisis, IDF said school sites were being used by Hamas militants, and that it was targeting militants near the sites. On 11 September, Human Rights Watch said the attacks on Gaza schools were in violation of the laws of war.
During the war (from 8 July to 26 August), 500 Palestinian children were killed, and more than 3,000 injured, including 1,000 who became disabled. In addition, 1,500 children became orphans, according to figures from the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
As a result, UNRWA commissioner Gen Pierre Krähenbühl said many of Gazas hundreds of thousands of children were now “deep in trauma”.
In Israel, which was hit by thousands of rockets from Gaza, university final exams were cancelled and summer camps shut down. Scientific studies suggest previous conflicts contributed to mental health problems in teenage Israelis.
“From my experience [in Gaza], this conflict has been the hardest for all of us, and we are getting some training to deal with the implications,” said Mohsen, a teacher in a Gaza public elementary school. “Children will get support in the first weeks of the school year. However, it cannot be normal at all. Imagine a child sitting in his chair, while a chair nearby where his friend was sitting is now empty. How can this be justified or even forgotten? We always pray for a better future for our children.”
According to a rapid assessment report by the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 26 schools were completely destroyed in Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, while 122 schools were variously damaged, including 75 UNRWA schools.
The head of the Islamic University, Kamaleen Sha'th, estimates losses caused by damage to building facilities there at US$3 million. At least 11 higher education organizations were hit during the war.
“We were already in a crisis and these attacks will add to our burdens, especially after these hard and long years of the blockade,” said Sha’th. The delayed academic year is due to start on 20 September. “On psychosocial support, we have a training programme to deal with our students, while we cooperate with local organizations and off-campus trainers to provide related support to Gaza residents, including children.”
Over 60,000 still sheltering in schools
During the war, 85 schools were turned into shelters for more than 300,000 displaced persons among the roughly half a million who were displaced. After the ceasefire announcement on 26 August, most of the displaced started to return to their areas and homes or moved to other houses, although more than 63,000 are still taking shelter at 29 UNRWA schools (as of 8 September), and hundreds are sheltering in two public schools.
Meanwhile, preparations are in progress to clean up and carry out maintenance and repairs in most of the schools, while search teams work to remove unexploded ordnance.
Psychosocial support efforts started during the conflict for children and their families with volunteer groups and local and international NGOs supporting work in shelters and affected areas.
The Palestinian ministry of education has started a psychosocial support programme for students, which involves training school staff to help children mentally recover.
In one of the schools still sheltering families, psychosocial teams are working with dozens of displaced children. A watching father of five, Mustafa, 42, told IRIN: “In spite of all, we want our children to return to their normal life, classes and overcome.
“I know it is difficult because of the destruction that reached everything, and we are still here and homeless. We are still clinging to hope always for better life for all of us, and education is one of the main factors to achieve that. It is a life investment,” he said.