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Students return to Gaza schools still suffering from lack of heat and electricity

GAZA, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 13 February 2008 – Nearly 400 government schools in Gaza have reopened their doors to a quarter of a million students returning from winter break – but teachers and children have been met with classrooms that have neither heat nor light due to reduced power supplies.

“Even before the fuel cuts, power shortages meant that children were already cold in classrooms,” said Saeed Harb, who runs schools in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost district. “And many rooms didn’t have light simply because there were no longer any light bulbs in the market. Children are finding it almost impossible to learn, and you can see it in their failing marks.”

Restrictions on all but survival basics
Israel has restricted the entry of all but survival basics such as fuel, food and medicine into Gaza since June 2007, when Hamas took control. In October, energy supplies to Gaza’s 1.4 million residents were cut in response to cross-border rocket attacks, and in January all energy sources from within Israel were cut off following further attacks.

Gaza’s main power plant shut down three days later because of a lack of fuel, leaving households in large parts of the tiny coastal territory without light, heat or running water. Hospitals switched to emergency generators, cutting back on non-critical services. Sewage treatment shut down, and raw sewage was released into the sea at a rate of 30 million litres per day.

Israel has since agreed to restore energy supplies to Gaza, but well below the pre-June levels.

‘Children are bearing the brunt’
Mo’men Abu Al Sadeq, 10, is a student at Al Qasteena Basic School, west of Gaza City. His school has no heat, so students wear more sweaters.

When there’s no electricity at school, he said, “I panic because I can’t read well or do anything.” When there’s no electricity at home, Mo’men’s father buys gas light and candles so he can do homework. He said that power cuts can last from 8 to 10 hours a day in his neighbourhood.

January’s fuel cuts fell upon a population predominantly made up of children. “Some 56 per cent of Gazans are under 18 years old,” said UNICEF Special Representative Patricia McPhillips. “That means that children are bearing the brunt of restrictions – whether it is of food, fuel or school supplies.”

Enrolment levels and test scores also tell a story of deep decline.

“For months now, we skipped classes that were heavy on energy consumption, such as IT or science labs, and extracurricular activities,” said the principal of the Al Kahera Girls School, Sana Al Taweel. “We lack printing paper and chalk, and our fax machines, printers, overhead projectors and photocopiers need spare parts. Basically, children are being robbed of an education.”

Effect of daily hardships
Meanwhile, millions of dollars worth of school construction and renovation projects are on hold because of restrictions on imports of cement and building material, according to Chris Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which runs 214 schools in Gaza.

UNICEF has been active in Gaza, delivering safe drinking water to 220 schools each day and providing emergency education supplies to make up for the lack of classroom resources. The organization is also supporting the construction of stationary water storage tanks and providing mobile tanks for emergency use, as well as aiding drainage projects in areas where sewage has accumulated and spilled into the streets.

In addition, UNICEF is distributing 100 recreation kits for children living in households hard hit by the power cuts.

These emergency measures will help in the short term, but the effects of children’s failing grades and daily hardships will likely resonate in Gaza for a long time.

“Palestinian students and teachers have demonstrated an enduring commitment to education,” said Ms. McPhillips. “The surest road to development and security lies in well-educated and healthy children, and this is a collective responsibility.”

 

 
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