The morning roll call will be a particularly morbid affair on the first day of school in Gaza this Sunday. Hundreds of students, killed in the recent fighting, will be forever marked absent.
Many students are too badly injured or maimed to attend the first day of school. And thousands of students will need to adjust to sharing schools that escaped damage, because their old school now lies in rubble or remains a shelter for displaced families.
According to the United Nations and Gaza’s Ministry of Education, 228 school buildings were damaged to varying degrees during the latest fighting—143 government schools, 75 schools run by the UN, and 10 private schools – including 26 severely damaged or destroyed.
Priorities right now include clearing school buildings of any leftover explosive remnants from the fighting, and ensuring that displaced families living inside many dozens of schools find suitable alternative shelter. Textbooks and furniture will also need to be quickly replaced.
Gaza’s schools were already overstretched before the fighting, with a shortage of almost 200 schools. Around 90 percent of schools will now be running on a double shift, cutting each student’s school hours to just four hours each day. The school year is already starting three weeks late, and students will have weeks of psycho-social counselling and support before they are ready to study the regular curriculum. These students face tough challenges if they are to catch up with their compatriots in the West Bank in time for competitive exams next year.
Although schools in Israel opened on time, some students there will also require psycho-social support as a priority at the beginning of the year, as a result of fear and anxiety caused by having to run and shelter from Hamas' indiscriminate rocket attacks. In addition, three schools in Israel are reported to have been damaged by rockets launched from Gaza.
There is, in the words of Pierre Krähenbühl, the top official overseeing UN schools in Gaza, a “crying need” for financial support. But the United States has something perhaps even more indispensable to offer—political pressure on Israel to ease its economic blockade of Gaza.
Funds for school repair and reconstruction will be meaningless unless Israel lifts its long-standing restrictions on importing construction materials into the territory, subject to monitoring to guard against diversion for military purposes. These restrictions, in place since 2006, go far beyond those needed to guard against the import of weaponry or other military goods, and amount to collective punishment against the civilian population. They undermine children and their right to education by impeding the building, reconstruction, and refurbishment of schools.
Under the latest ceasefire agreement, Israel has agreed to facilitate the delivery of goods into Gaza. The implementing mechanisms, however, remain to be developed. Hamas has used concrete to build tunnels for attacking Israel, but if the blockade isn’t appropriately eased to allow construction materials destined for humanitarian purposes such as restoring the education sector, many damaged schools will remain too dangerous for use, and destroyed schools will remain rubble.
It is not yet clear in all cases how the 228 schools were damaged. Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on schools, unless they are being used for military purposes, are serious violations of the laws of war, which should be impartially investigated and appropriately punished. In a briefing to media, the Israeli military has shown photographs of what it said were rockets fired from school compounds. The UN also reported that unidentified Palestinian armed groups stored weapons in at least three schools, and Israeli forces stayed inside at least one school, using the schools for military purposes and putting them at risk of attack. However, in two cases of Israeli attacks on schools Human Rights Watch investigated–in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya–we found that they did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate.
The Israeli military said that it has established a “Fact-Finding Assessments Committee” to “examine exceptional incidents” during the latest fighting. Israel, however, has a record of failing to undertake credible investigations into alleged laws-of-war violations by its forces, so there is little reason to expect this latest inquiry to be any different.
To ensure that a credible investigation is done, the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council should examine the attacks on schools and make recommendations for follow-up by the Security Council. The United States should press Israel to ensure that the UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry has unfettered access throughout the conflict area. The Palestinian government should also request the International Criminal Court to extend its jurisdiction to all of Palestine to end the reign of impunity.
Children over 6-years-old in Gaza have now lived through three major conflicts and all the suffering that entailed. Donor countries should recognize that ensuring safe schools and good educational opportunities will require more than just financial support. They need to ensure that vital construction materials for schools promptly reach their intended destination, and that those responsible for attacks on schools are held responsible to deter such attacks in the future. Safe schools are one of the best places where children can regain a sense of normalcy and routine to their lives. Gaza’s children need the world’s long-term support.