The Destruction of Gaza’s Schools and the Future of Palestinian Children

Brookings, August 3, 2014

Last week, according to the United Nations, Israeli forces bombed the Jabalia Elementary Girls School in northern Gaza while it served as an U.N.-designated shelter. At least 15 people—including four children—were killed, and many more wounded. Yesterday, an Israeli strike in the immediate vicinity of an U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school in Rafah killed at least nine and injured over 25 people, while on July 23rd, a similar attack on another UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun left 15—including six children—dead and over 100 injured.

UNRWA schools have been hit by direct shelling six times in the past month. According to a statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, the Jabalia incident represents “an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame.” U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown added, “Schools should never be theatres of war but should be safe havens for boys and girls,” while Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui stated frankly, “After three weeks of conflict, no one can doubt that there are no safe places for the children of Gaza.” The plight of children in Gaza is further compounded by militants storing munitions inside of schools. As Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UNRWA, has said “This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises. We call on all the warring parties to respect the inviolability of U.N. property.”

These recent events are not isolated incidents. Frequent major military attack campaigns, the 7-year blockade, and the resulting collective psychological trauma are destroying the hope and means of education and with it the future of Palestinian children and youth.

Military Operations

Since the current Israeli military offensive, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” began on July 7, at least 138 schools have been bombed or damaged, including 89 run by UNRWA with the full extent of damage still unknown, according to the latest report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Almost 330 children have been killed and at least 2,000 injured. Over 250,000 displaced Palestinians are seeking refuge in 90 UNRWA schools, and over 15,000 in 19 government and private schools and other facilities, making it impossible to imagine that these schools will be ready to open in a few short weeks for the start of the academic year. 

Students, teachers, and education institutions have frequently fallen victim to the conflict. The previous “Operation Pillar of Defense,” lasting eight days in November 2012, cost the lives of 11 students and four teachers, and 300 students were injured, according to a 2012 OCHA report.  During the military onslaught, nearly 300 educational facilities (including kindergartens, schools and tertiary education institutions) were damaged or destroyed. Students missed at least six days of school and exams were disrupted. During “Operation Cast Lead,” 250 students and 15 teachers were killed, while 856 students and 19 teachers were injured between December 2008 and January 2009, as noted by the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. Forty-four U.N. schools were used as emergency shelters for more than 50,000 individuals and at least 280 schools and kindergartens were destroyed or damaged. Again, schools were closed for weeks and semester exams disrupted.

The 7-Year Blockade

Even before the current offensive, the state of education in Gaza has been in dire circumstances, largely due to Israel’s ongoing blockade. The blockade chokes the education system by restricting the movement of people and goods that are necessary to ensure it meets the needs of the students in Gaza. Construction materials for schools, books, textbooks, and pencils are repeatedly denied entry into Gaza, hampering the ability of the international community to increase access to education, particularly the construction of an additional 250 needed schools. A lack of fuel in addition to frequent power cuts meant that in 2012 nearly 95 percent of primary and secondary school students in Gaza had insufficient electricity to complete their homework most of the time. It is therefore no surprise that almost half of Palestinian students do not meet the basic learning outcomes according to international benchmarks. 

Poverty and lack of opportunity resulting from the blockade also have devastating impacts on the lives of children and youth and their ability and desire to study. In Gaza, nearly 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Unemployment is at almost 40 percent. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the majority of school children suffer from anemia. This is a direct result of inadequate food supplies being allowed into Gaza under the Israeli and also Egyptian restrictions.

Even high achieving students who overcome these obstacles have very few options and often find themselves immobile. Students who wish to pursue higher education abroad, for example, are rarely allowed to leave Gaza, even if only to the West Bank. As such, hundreds of students miss out every year on studying outside of Gaza’s borders. These factors contribute to the state of hopelessness among the young generation with over one-quarter of university students saying they are not at all hopeful about the future.

Psychosocial Impacts

The psychosocial impacts of military operations, the blockade and ongoing occupation are not adequately researched but available information suggests severe impacts.  After Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted that 76.8 percent of teachers at the primary, preparatory and secondary levels reported that their students were performing at a lower level than before the war “most of the time” or “always.” Teachers reported that they were unable to teach as well as they had before the military operations. Many felt that they were not equipped to deal with the long-lasting psychosocial impacts of the war on their students, who show increased anxiety, aggression, fearfulness, and problems learning.

The psychosocial impact from the ongoing “Operation Protective Edge” are yet to be determined, though OCHA already estimates that over 320,000 children require direct and specialized psychosocial support.  Palestinian youth in Gaza are already giving the world a glimpse of the horror they are living. One of these youth is 16-year old Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan), who has 138,000 followers on Twitter. In her young life Farah has already lived through Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar Defense. Six days ago, she tweeted a picture from her window showing the sky lit up with bombs: “This is in my area. I can’t stop crying. I might die tonight.” Following that tweet, Farah told NBC “I used to say that the war in 2008 was the worst it has been, but after last night, I would say that this is the worst because I really felt like I could die at any moment.”

Frequent major military campaigns, the 7-year blockade, and the resulting collective psychological trauma are destroying education in Gaza and the future of Palestinian children and youth. The international response has been totally inadequate and ineffective not only over the course of the current conflict, but rather over decades of blockade and occupation.  Condemnation of the act of targeting schools is not enough. A meaningful and comprehensive response must at minimum include five actions:

  1. Ending attacks on schools. All leaders must demand an end to attacks on schools as the U.N. secretary-general has done. Schools must be treated as sanctuaries and must not be used or targeted by any party for any military or unlawful purposes.
  2. Adopting new guidelines on protecting education in conflict. The international community must work urgently and diligently to detail and adopt the Lucens Guidelines, as advocated by the U.N. Education Envoy Gordon Brown. The guidelines are a set of rules, drawn from international humanitarian law and good practices for protecting schools, directed at both government forces and non-state armed groups in conflict countries.
  3. Lifting the blockade of Gaza. All parties including the international community must work towards ending the 7-year blockade on Gaza as a key step towards peace. Without an end to the blockade, Palestinian children and youth will continue to live their lives without their basic human rights, including denial of access to quality education.
  4. Supporting education resources. The philanthropic community must fund the education-financing gap and facilitate access to education goods and construction materials needed for increasing the number of schools in Gaza.
  5. Addressing psychosocial needs. Local partners and the international community must provide support to local organizations to ensure education meets the psychosocial needs of students and teachers.

These are minimum requirements, each enshrined in international law and the rights of all individuals.

It is only through a comprehensive and consistent approach that Palestinian children in Gaza will be able to pursue their education and the lives they desperately want and deserve.