Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat—The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have fled their homes to seek shelter in UN-run schools since the start of the current Israeli onslaught of Gaza fear they may be expelled come the start of the new academic year, as the Palestinian Ministry of Education has said it intends for classes to run on schedule even if the attacks continue.
Motasem Al-Menawi, manager of the Public Relations and Media Department at the Ministry of Education in Gaza, has said there were “no alternative plans to postpone [classes],” and that the academic year was scheduled to “start as planned on August 24.”
Menawi said contact had been established with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) in this regard so that the academic year runs to schedule. He emphasized that the Ministry was ready to start term on time despite the damage inflicted on schools in the Gaza Strip.
Officials in charge of the relief operations in schools run by the UNWRA said, however, that although there were several proposals being put forward regarding the start-date of term and providing accommodation for the displaced, no final decisions had yet been made. They told Asharq Al-Awsat that “such proposals include options such as transporting all displaced people to a few schools, providing food and services for them, and then opening other schools for students to start the new academic year.”
Despite the Ministry’s statements regarding the start of term, the officials indicated that the new term may be postponed until a decision is made by the Palestinian unity government presided over by Rami Hamdallah.
“Postponing the academic year would be for a short period and would not last for months, unless the military operation in Gaza is prolonged and no ceasefire is reached to let the UNRWA arrange for the students’ safe return to school,” they added.
Somaya Seyam, a resident of the Zeitoun neighborhood in southern Gaza, sought refuge in the New Gaza School in the Al-Nasr district after her house was destroyed for the second time. Seyam said that during the 2008–2009 war on Gaza she and her family were asked to leave the schools to let the UNRWA start classes only one week after the war ended. As a result, they were forced to search for new homes despite soaring rents.
Seyam lives with nearly 47 people in one classroom. “Where should we take our kids? There is no place to go. Had there been a place to go, we would not have come here to live such a hard life,” she exclaimed.
“Here, there is no air to breathe, no freedom of movement, and no food . . . Here you only feel throttled, and the officials do not endure the burden of our stay here. Where can we go after we became homeless?” she asked.
Mohamed Abul-Lail, who fled his home in the Al-Tufah neighborhood and arrived at the same school nearly 25 days ago, said that his home was completely destroyed and that he cannot leave the school before the UNRWA, the government or any organization can find a shelter for him.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has been unemployed ever since the second Intifada, after the Israeli authorities denied him the right to work inside the Green Line. He has since been living off donations to survive.
“Four hundred children died in the war, and instead of the UNRWA working towards our protection, it wants us to die outside of its schools. What will happen if the academic year is postponed for one, two or three months until they find a solution for us?” Abul-Lail said.
UNRWA’s spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna told Asharq Al-Awsat that solutions had been found and variant plans had been drawn up to handle the current security situation in Gaza. He indicated that if a lasting agreement is reached between Israel and Hamas the academic year will go according to plan without any change.
When asked about the fate of the displaced, Abu Hasna said that a plan would be drawn up to have some schools function in shifts in order to keep other schools open as shelters. He stressed that contact had been made with the Ministry of Education in the unity government to help solve the problem.
The decision regarding the start-date for the new term depended on whether military operations ended, he said.
According to unofficial Palestinian reports, 480,000 people took shelter in the UNRWA schools in Gaza, as well as 1,500 others seeking refuge in schools run by the Palestinian authorities.
Concerning those sheltering in the schools, Menawi said: “This is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Education, as there are government committees which are responsible for this. Each Ministry has a specialized body that undertakes supervision of the displaced people’s affairs and acts toward ending their suffering.”