Students in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood of Gaza City attend class in a school damaged during Israel’s 2014 military assault. (Photo: ActiveStilles / Anne Paq)
Ramallah, August 10, 2017—Imran M., a 14-year-old from the eastern part of Gaza City, spends his school days in constant fear. Imran’s school is 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the Gaza-Israel border, in regular proximity to Israeli forces. “We always have this feeling that something bad is about to happen to us.”
For children like Imran who are enrolled in schools near Gaza’s border with Israel, frequent clashes and shootings make each school day a dangerous challenge.
Imran told Defense for Children International - Palestine about a particular day last year when clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces stationed across the border sent a bullet flying through his classroom window, striking a blackboard. “We were so terrified by the sound that we rushed out of the classroom. We left our books and notebooks on the seats and rushed out, shouting in fear,” said Imran.
According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are 13 schools serving over 4,500 students within 1500 meters (0.9 miles) of the Gaza-Israel border fence. For many of these children, being close to Israeli military fixtures and in range of military actions every day is stressful, affecting both school attendance and performance. Students said they often struggle to pay attention to the lessons at hand.
“We don’t focus that much on what teachers are saying because we’re looking through the windows at Israeli tanks, bulldozers, watchtowers, and army jeeps,” 17-year-old Amira Q, from the southeastern village of Khuza’a, told DCIP. “Imagine what would happen if the Israeli army opened fire, or bulldozers moved toward the school. It happens a lot. We’re scared and distracted.”
In 2005, Israel unilaterally declared a long strip of Palestinian territory along the border a no-go zone, often referred to as the “buffer zone.” The exact range is unclear and Palestinians often only know they have entered it when they encounter Israeli fire.
Military fixtures like watchtowers, gunmen and tanks are common along the border, and the buffer zone is the site of frequent clashes representing significant risks for children in the area.
Ahmad Fateeha, an educational supervisor at Shuja’iyya Secondary School for Boys said that even when no active clashed are taking place, shootings and other military activities can be seen or heard. “There are always shootings by Israeli soldiers with heavy machine guns while combing the border area, targeting lands, farmers, and bird hunters,” Fateeha said.
The school he works in is approximately 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the border, by his estimate, and serves around 550 students. Located in Shuja’iyya, a neighborhood that was devastated by Israeli air strikes during 2014 hostilities, the school has been struck by bombs and and was once temporarily converted into a military post by Israeli forces.
Each day, there are many reminders of the school’s vulnerable location, Fateeha noted. “We hear Israeli tanks very clearly across the border and we see warplanes, mostly drones, from inside the school.”
Compounding these risks, children who attend schools near the border also often live near the border. As such, neither home nor school is entirely safe.
“I live near the border and I go to school close to the border,” said Malak R., 16, who lives and studies in the northeastern corner of the Strip, in Beit Hanoun. “I’m scared to leave the house because there might be Israeli special forces moving into the border area. I can’t really focus in this kind of atmosphere because there’s always tension and fear.”
”I can see Israeli tanks and some soldiers, and I get really scared,” Malak told DCIP, describing the 30-minute trek he makes to school each day. “Sometimes I bend over and look straight and walk faster to make it to areas where there are people,” he said. “If I hear any sound of gunfire when I’m home or on the way to school, I rush back inside.”
For most of the children DCIP interviewed, transferring to another school is not an option because of long travel distances or overcrowding. Building new school facilities is a challenge in Gaza, as the now decade-long Israeli land, sea, and air blockade of Gaza has prevented or acutely limited a wide range of goods and services from reaching children, including construction materials.
Gaza’s need for new schools has been exacerbated by damages to educational facilities during repeated Israeli military assaults. Over half of Gaza’s educational facilities were damaged during the 2014 assault, affecting an estimated 559,000 students. According to OCHA, while there is a need for at least 20 new schools in Gaza each year to keep up with population growth, a mere 20 new schools have been built since 2013.
Students and faculty from schools along the border still suffer from the trauma of Israel’s 50-day military assault on Gaza over the summer of 2014, when they often came under heavy bombardment or were taken over by the Israeli army. Proximity to the Israeli military often forces children to re-live this trauma.
“We still talk about the war almost every day,” Imran told DCIP. “When we leave school, we see destroyed houses and factories nearby. We see Israeli tanks and soldiers across the border, near the school. How could we forget the war and the things the Israeli army did to us? I can’t deny we’re afraid something bigger will happen.”
“Following the recent war on Gaza in 2014, students had nightmares and disturbing dreams,” Iman Qdaih, a school counselor at Khuza’a Secondary School for Girls in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, told DCIP. Qdaih observed that her students are still greatly impacted by these memories.
“[I]f I enter a classroom suddenly and perhaps knock on the door loudly, it’s likely the girls will start to scream and cry,” said Qdaih. “In their minds they’re still afraid of what they went through during the war.”
The Ministry of Education has created training programs for teachers and students in schools near the borders to practice evacuating the school in the case of attack. In Khan Younis, Akram N., 17, and his fellow students have practiced evacuations, first aid, and how to deal with suspicious objects.
But students, many of whom have now lived through three wars, are not comforted. Akram explained, “They taught us how to evacuate the school if there is an emergency. But the problem is, after we leave school, where can we go? There’s no place to run or hide.”
Take action to end collective punishment of Gaza's children.