| Sakher Abu El Oun |
GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – As hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children returned to school in Gaza on Sunday, Azhar recited a poem eulogising her father, killed by Israeli shelling in the enclave’s recent conflict.
“Daddy, what can I tell you, if I say I love you it’s not enough,” the nine-year-old, who was beginning the fourth grade, read to a classroom of teary children.
“Today is the first day of school, so even though my dad was martyred in the war – I’m happy,” she told AFP with a smile.
Azhar, her classmates and half a million other children in Gaza were going back to school after a three-week delay caused by the 50-day conflict that ravaged the enclave and left more than 2,140 Palestinians dead.
This year’s return to the classrooms, teachers and principals said, would focus first on dealing with the emotional trauma many of the children are still suffering.
A placard is displayed on an empty table in memory of Najeah al-Helo, 14, who was killed during the Israeli offensive, as Palestinian students sit in a classroom at a goverment school in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City on September 14 on the first day of the new school year. Half a million children in Gaza start the new school year three weeks late as a result of the devastating 50-day war between Israel and Hamas that ended on August 26 – PHOTOS: AFP
“We listen to their experiences from the (summer) vacation, some stories make us laugh, some make us cry. We encourage them to talk as much as they can,” said Azhar’s teacher, Rima Abu Khatla.
Azhar’s father Tamer Jundiyeh was killed in an air strike on the Shejaiya neighbourhood, orphaning her and her five younger siblings.
“I’m scared the war will start again,” she told AFP, recalling the missiles from Israeli aircraft that hit her house and killed her father.
Azhar’s classmate Isra shook as she spoke of the Israeli raid that killed her grandfather and aunt.
“The martyrs and wounded were lying in front of us, we were very scared,” the nine-year-old told AFP. “My grandfather and auntie Layla were killed, I saw them in our house.”
Another classmate, Doa, had lost her school uniform after her house was destroyed, and came to class wearing regular clothes.
“We left our house when it was being bombed and when we returned it had been destroyed,” she told AFP.
The UN agency for aid to Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which runs 245 schools in Gaza, has provided specialised training to teachers, with the UN estimating that 373,000 children in Gaza will “require direct and specialised psycho-social support” this school year.
The latest conflict with Israel, which began July 8, was the deadliest since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Palestinian territory, with more than 500 children killed, according to UN data.
Thousands of structures, including schools, were razed by the bombings.
Samia al-Zaalane, the principal of the Shejaiya school attended by Azhar, said many students had to be transferred to her school, where nine out of 18 classrooms were completely destroyed.
“We had to merge classes – instead of 35 pupils per class, we now have 60,” she told AFP.
Gaza’s education ministry says 24 schools were destroyed by Israeli bombardments, with another 190 partially damaged in the impoverished Strip, in which almost 45 per cent of the population of 1.8 million is under 14 years of age.
Israeli rights group Gisha said that prior to the war, Gaza was already short 259 schools, due partly to Israeli restrictions on the delivery of construction materials.
And even as the school year begins, some 65,000 Palestinians are still living in UNRWA schools where they fled to escape bombardments that destroyed 20,000 homes, with solutions for alternative housing slow to come.