Gaza school is political victim

Gaza School Is Student Refuge, Target for Israel, Palestinians

By Jonathan Ferziger, Bloomberg, February 26, 2009

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) — Abeer Obaid adored the American International School in Gaza, a preppie refuge where she huddled with her friends in the computer lab and dreamed of going to Yale University.

The landscaped $5 million campus is now a heap of concrete slabs and rubble, blasted by Israel in a predawn air strike Jan. 3 during its 22-day military offensive against Hamas. Rebuilding may take as long as two years, as Obaid, 17, and the other students go to classes in temporary quarters.

The attack was the latest assault on Gaza’s only English- language school, which mixes boys and girls in classes and sends most graduates to Western colleges. In addition to getting caught in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the school has also been the target of Palestinian militants who have blown up a classroom and kidnapped staff members.

Its travails demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining a bastion of liberalism in an area controlled by an Islamic movement the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.

“Hamas has created an atmosphere in which people are afraid that they’re going to be accused of committing sin and that has encouraged the radicals to do things like attacking schools,” said Khalil Abu Shamala, director of Gaza’s Al-Dameer Association of Human Rights. “There’s a lot of hostility against anything that has to do with America.”

Ribhi Salem, the principal, said Hamas hasn’t interfered with the school; the problems come from fringe groups that also target Christian schools and organizations. In April 2007, the Baptist Church’s bookstore in Gaza City was firebombed. Its manager was stabbed to death six months later.

No Jurisdiction

Gaza’s Hamas-controlled education ministry doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the American school because it is private, said a ministry spokesman, who declined further comment.

In the midst of the violent struggle in Gaza between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority’s secular Fatah movement — which Hamas purged from the territory in June 2007 — the school’s 32,000 square-meter (7.9 acre) campus was an oasis. Long after classes ended each day, many of its 220 students played soccer on the three athletic fields or relaxed in the hallways with friends.

“We don’t have malls and movie theatres in Gaza like other kids do,” 11th-grader Adham al-Khodary said, gazing down at his flattened classrooms from an adjacent hill. “It was just a great place to hang out.”

Covering Deficits

The school was built in 2000 to accommodate 600 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Money came from the Palestine Investment Fund, an arm of the Palestinian Authority, which continues to cover its deficits — although Salem, 57, said it was “almost” breaking even.

Annual tuition and fees total about $3,500, well out of range for most families in the poverty-stricken area. Almost all the graduates go to college, about 20 percent in Gaza and 80 percent abroad — mainly in the U.S. and Canada, Salem said.

The campus, in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, is managed by Cairo-based Educational Services Overseas Ltd., a private company that runs four other institutions in the Middle East that carry the American International School brand name and follow a U.S. course of study. The Gaza branch is among only a few of the territory’s 618 schools to emphasize the arts, with classes in music, painting and American literature. Its now- smashed library held 10,000 books.

“We teach a liberal curriculum, we have a coeducational school and we promote American values,” Salem said. “One can understand why this is difficult for Hamas, but why should Israel want to hurt this institution?”

Launch Site

According to a statement from the Israeli army, Israel bombed the school because it “was used as a central location for the launching of rockets upon Israel’s civilian population.”

Salem maintains that none of the Hamas attacks came from inside the gated campus, though he acknowledges that Palestinians often used open fields surrounding the school to fire rockets into Israeli territory.

From a low hill overlooking the ruins, one can see the smokestacks of an Israeli power station 15 kilometers (9 miles) north in Ashkelon and the Ashdod seaport further up the coast, tantalizing targets for Hamas and its Russian-designed Grad missiles.

Besides destroying the school, the 3:45 a.m. Israeli air raid killed Salem Abu Klaiq, 24, the night watchman. The attack was cited in a Feb. 23 report by Amnesty International, which said both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the three weeks of fighting.

Mistaken Identities

Salem started as the school’s project director in 1999 before it opened and then took on his present job in 2005 after the previous principal and a teacher were kidnapped by Palestinian militants, who mistakenly thought they were American, he said.

Dutch-born Hendrik Taatgen and the teacher, Australian Brian Ambrosio, were released after 12 hours. Nevertheless, they and the 22 other foreign teachers decided it wasn’t safe to stay in Gaza. The remaining 28 local staff members carried on, continuing to hold all classes except Arabic in English.

On Jan. 10, 2008, hours before former U.S. President George W. Bush visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, a group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the school, destroying the main arts classroom. Two days later, members set fire to six yellow school buses, windows were smashed and several computers were stolen.

Passion for Science

Obaid, a dark-haired Gaza native with a straight-A record, said the school has nurtured her passion for science, despite the interruptions. Her goal is to come back home after college and become a surgeon.

After spending last year as an exchange student in Alexandria, Louisiana, she became interested in U.S. universities and decided to apply to Yale. The war prevented her from completing her application before the Dec. 31 deadline, and she worried she’d have to settle for her second choice: the American University of Beirut.

Then she got word from Jeffrey Brenzel — dean of admissions for the New Haven, Connecticut, school — that he would make an exception for her because of the conflict.

“I was really sad because I thought they might not take the application, so it’s great that I got some extra time,” she said. “Now I just have to be accepted.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Gaza at jferziger@bloomberg.net

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