A day at the Gaza seaside

It was the last day of school before the summer holidays, a day when the children are allowed to dispense with uniforms. Beit Lahiya lies in the far north of the Gaza Strip, along the border with Israel and the sullen concrete wall that marks it. It is literally within spitting distance of Israeli military positions and watchtowers. A few hundred metres to the west is the Mediterranean Sea, which you can hear crashing against the strip of beach running the length of Gaza.

It could, for a few seconds, seem like a wonderful place. A school right by the seaside.

"What a bloody year it's been." The director of the school spoke metaphorically and literally. Beit Lahiya is one of the areas from which Qassam rockets are fired into Israel by Palestinian groups, mainly Hamas. Most have landed on the settlement of Sderot and the Erez border post, killing at least two people so far, and wounding several others. The school is in the front line of the air strikes and the helicopter gunship attacks that follow the Qassam rockets. As I visited the school, an Israeli tank was on its way to take up a position in a field inside the Gaza Strip, adjacent to the school.

It was easy to see from the clothes the children were wearing, from the tots in the kindergarten to the teenagers hoping to go on to college, but who knows where or when, that the children were from privileged backgrounds. I would print the school's name, but the principal (a westerner) has twice been targeted for kidnapping and the administrative offices of the school were firebombed in the middle of classes, spreading terror and panic among teachers and pupils alike. The families have continued to send their children there, which speaks volumes about the resilience of Gazans and their hunger for education. And yet, the truth is that the best and brightest of these pupils, as well as the middle-class families to which they belong, are leaving.

Ahmed sat with a group of his friends, young men and women in jeans, with all the western fashion accessories you would expect of a well-off teenager in LA or Milan. "I'm going to the American University in Cairo," he said. The director asked if his family was staying in Gaza for the summer. "No," Ahmed said, "we're all moving. We're going."

There have always been pictures of "martyrs" next to the ubiquitous graffiti extolling various militias and political organisations. Now they are everywhere - forests of them, on streets and on motorways, in town squares, cafes, mosques, markets, shopping streets. Many are boys, hardly able to grow facial hair. It is shocking.

These are the role models for young Gazans. It is hardly surprising. Since the Six Day War, whose 40th anniversary we have just marked, Gaza's economy has been based on income (largely from migratory labour into Israel) rather than production. But the strip is now completely economically blockaded. In January, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned of the threat of food insecurity in Gaza. Unemployment in the strip was 31 per cent in 2002. Most analysts believe it is now double that.

Few parents can do anything for their children in a place that Gazans repeatedly refer to as "an open prison". The day I was leaving, in the first week of school holidays in the strip, three young boys went to swim in the sea. Kite-flying is hugely popular in Gaza. Kites are the cheapest of toys because children can make them themselves. So that the kites wouldn't fly away while the boys swam, they buried them in the sand.

When the boys returned from their dip, one Israeli position found their digging in the earth suspicious and opened fire. One boy was killed; the others ran for their lives. That's summer in Gaza for children.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent