As the 456,000 schoolchildren in the Gaza Strip start their academic year, they face chronic shortages of everything from paper, textbooks and ink cartridges to school uniforms, school bags and computers, the result of the Israeli blockade. At the same time, severely overcrowded classrooms are having to accommodate students whose schools were destroyed or damaged in the last siege, early this year.
The only supplies on the market are smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt. Yet even when materials are available, many cannot afford them: 80 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million people live below the poverty line. The ministry of education has instructed teachers not to expect pupils to have "too many textbooks", but Ahmed Abdelhameed, who has eight school-age children, says that "teachers still ask for the full quota of school supplies, as if we were living in Sweden".
"I can no longer understand why we need to suffer, why textbooks and pencils are not allowed," he says. "Does Israel see these as threatening weapons, too?"
The paper available is of poor quality. Abdelhameed says one of his daughters is just starting school and he has bought smuggled notebooks for her. But "when she uses an eraser, the paper tears", he says. "This makes a mess of the next page, too." With such quality problems, supplies run out fast, which raises the cost. "What gets through is never enough," he explains. "I will have to continue next week to roam around the Gaza Strip looking for stationery and school bags for the kids.
"I am lucky enough to be able to afford some notebooks, but I hear stories from my daughter about kids in her class having to use pieces of palm leaves as rollers and garbage bags as school bags."
A maths teacher from Khan Younis says that "some of the students share stationery. Others use old notebooks."
The deputy director of the chamber of commerce, Mahmoud al-Yazji, says Gaza faces a grave problem in getting supplies to students. He estimates that 90 per cent of the student population is affected. "Israel is deliberately aiming not to allow stationery into the Gaza Strip," he says. "Occupation forces blocked 1,750 containers of school supplies and stationery worth US$150m."
Merchants in the occupied territory have ordered tens of thousands of school bags from foreign suppliers, but Israel is still blocking all imports. Opening the Israeli-controlled crossings to Gaza, he points out, is the way to secure supplies for the students.
Effects of Israeli assault
A higher education spokesman, Khalid Radi, is adamant that his department has instructed teachers not to pressure students, and in the meantime is in contact with humanitarian groups from the Arab world and beyond to find ways of getting stationery into Gaza. But "all [the] latest attempts from human rights groups have failed", he says. "It makes me wonder if these pupils holding a pencil are viewed as more dangerous than if they were holding a rocket."
In the last assault on Gaza, 18 schools were destroyed and at least 280 damaged. Many are still in need of building materials to complete repairs, say UN sources. Radi says the shortage of materials is affecting students badly. "The weather is getting colder. We don't have replacements for damaged school windows, and students will suffer the effects of the last assault on Gaza throughout the coming year, with destruction in their heads," he says. The ministry of education reports that classes often have to squeeze in up to 55 students.
"The blockade has caused untold suffering to children in Gaza," says Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories. Dr Fadel Abu Hien, a professor of psychology at al-Aqsa University, says many students stop attending classes due to shortages of books, pens and paper. "Israel is using the control over Gaza's borders to cause psychological destruction among students who want to study and learn."
No relief for refugees
Human rights groups have criticised Israel's restrictions on the Gaza Strip and the limits placed on supplies. Only basic food and rudimentary materials are allowed through. The groups describe these as "inadequate for the needs of over 1.5 million people". UN officials say that instruments and equipment for school science laboratories are also in short supply. The humanitarian co-ordinator representing UN aid agencies in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), and the Association of International Development Agencies (Aida), represented by at least 25 NGOs, have demanded full and unfettered access into and out of Gaza in particular to restore the education system.
Maxwell Gaylard, of the UN Special Co-ordinator Office for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), concedes that Gaza needs more school supplies, despite the efforts of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to bring in basic school stationery. Gaylard says UNSCO has repeatedly asked the government of Israel urgently to facilitate entry of construction materials and schools supplies in the coming weeks, It has also requested that students, teachers and trainers be allowed to move freely in and out of Gaza so that education can progress. Asked if the information about the shortage of essential materials is reaching the higher levels of the Israeli government and the UN, he says: "Yes, but it seems that Israel has a different definition of humanitarian needs from the definition that we use at UN."
The shortage of supplies is just another example of the frustration imposed on Palestinians under Israeli occupation.