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Written by admin  •  Tuesday, 13.10.2009, 13:50
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Video: Pupils describe Israel’s offensive as they return to a school that was bombed

It is early morning in northern Gaza. The streets are filled with children on their way to school. Most carry backpacks almost as big as themselves. All are dressed in crisply-ironed uniforms. It is quite an incongruous sight as they walk past piles of rubble and devastation – leftovers from Israel’s military operation earlier this year.

In the Elyen family home, nine-year-old Huda is nervous. Her mother is still preparing sandwiches. Huda is worried she will be late for school.

"We have a right to go to school, like they do" --Mahmoud Zakout, School pupil, Gaza

As bags are packed and hair plaited, there is not much wriggle room for the three school-aged children here. The Elyens live in a flimsy, one-bedroom shack.

Their house was destroyed and one of their cousins killed in an Israeli airstrike in January. Amer, their father, is worried about the winter. He tells me he cannot afford a proper roof.

He has been out of work for three years, ever since Israel imposed heavy restrictions on border crossings into the Gaza Strip, crushing the already weak local economy.

Amer says he hopes his children will finish their schooling, regardless of poverty or violence.

He had to leave school as a young boy to help support his brothers and sisters. He firmly believes that education can open doors to a better life.

But many of Gaza’s schoolchildren are less optimistic. They know that no matter how educated they are, opportunities are scarce. Unemployment is rampant.

Escaping Gaza for a better life elsewhere is almost impossible, as neighbouring Israel and Egypt keep their crossings with Gaza pretty much sealed shut.

Schooling is also repeatedly interrupted by conflict. This is sometimes due to violence between rival factions in Gaza but mainly because of military action by Israel. Israel says this is in response to rocket and mortar fire by Gaza militants, aimed at Israeli citizens.

School bombed

Huda Elyen’s primary school was bombed during Israel’s recent large-scale operation in Gaza.

On 17 January, Israeli white phosphorus shells hit the Beit Lahia Elementary School. Israel said it wanted to provide a smokescreen to protect Israeli troops from Palestinian gunmen.

Huda's school was bombed during a recent Israeli operation

But the school – run by the United Nations – was packed with families sheltering from the war. The UN insists no militants were operating there.

Two little brothers aged five and seven were killed, while women and children were wounded. People in the school said it was literally raining fire, and some of the classrooms were burned beyond recognition.

The classrooms have since been re-painted but the children’s memories of that day cannot be erased.

Nine-year-old Mahmoud Zakout lives near the school. He describes a scene of chaos, panic and destruction.

Mahmoud say he wants a good education but is angry with the Israelis for bombing Gaza centres of learning.

“We are innocent,” he protests. “Why do they do this to us? We have a right to go to school, like they do.”

According to the United Nations, at least 280 schools and nurseries were damaged during the war with Israel this year. Israeli troops have since withdrawn but sporadic military operations in Gaza continue.

The strip is run by Hamas, which believes Israel has no right to exist, and continues to allow occasional rocket fire across the border.

Israel only allows basic supplies into Gaza and this makes rebuilding virtually impossible.

Scarred

Children in Gaza also remain scarred. Many lost parents or other close relatives during Israel’s three-week offensive. Thousands were displaced, some lost their homes altogether and countless youngsters witnessed violent and bloody scenes.

Teachers describe their Gaza students as "psychologically destroyed"

According to the Palestinian health ministry, 1,800 youngsters were wounded and 400 killed. Israel’s military puts the number of dead children at 89. Israeli human rights groups put the figure far higher, at more than 250.

Teachers in Gaza say living in a war zone affects children’s performance at school.

Halla Abya, an English teacher at the UN primary school in Beit Lahia, says many of her students have trouble concentrating. She describes them as psychologically and socially destroyed.

The children we speak to in Beit Lahia say they suffer from nightmares.

Huda Elyen tells us she dreams of burning phosphorus and that the Israelis will come back and bomb them again. At school, she and her friends study and play, she says, but they cannot forget the days of the war.

The war in January was not the first. It is hard to find anyone in Gaza or Israel who believes it will be the last.

Schoolchildren in Gaza are no strangers to Israeli airstrikes or to masked Palestinian gunmen firing rockets from their neighbourhoods.

Being a child here means growing up with conflict.

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