Despite Bombing, Gaza School Endures

A Palestinian boy walks pas5 the rubble of the American International School. i i

hide captionA Palestinian boy walks past the rubble of the American International School, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike Jan. 19, in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza Strip.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
A Palestinian boy walks pas5 the rubble of the American International School.

A Palestinian boy walks past the rubble of the American International School, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike Jan. 19, in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza Strip.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Damage inside the American International School on Jan. 31. i i

hide captionDamage inside the American International School on Jan. 31 after Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Israel says Hamas militants used some schools as cover for their attacks.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Damage inside the American International School on Jan. 31.

Damage inside the American International School on Jan. 31 after Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Israel says Hamas militants used some schools as cover for their attacks.

Bernat Armangue/AP

In many parts of the world, summertime includes a few recurring themes: beaches, barbecues and summer camps. That is true even in the Gaza Strip, where weary parents are eager to give their children a few weeks of safe summer fun.

But like many things in Gaza since the Israeli military assault in December and January, some camps this summer have an improvisational feel.

In a rental hall more often used for wedding receptions, scores of children ages 6 to 12 and their parents gathered recently to celebrate summer camp staged by the American International School in Gaza.

The party marked the end of two weeks of swimming, arts and crafts, classes in Greek mythology and other activities — all conducted in English — that the school has held since it opened in 1999.

Makeshift Quarters

Camp coordinator Mohanned Esrani says although this year's camp had to be moved to a new location and was limited in both size and activities, in some ways it was the most satisfying.

"It was the biggest challenge to find some suitable place for our camp," Esrani says. "Because, you know, our old school it was a paradise in Gaza. But now we don't have anyplace to make it. So the challenge was — you know, we have a very good staff here — working together as one team to draw a smile at the faces, child's faces."

The American International School evoked strong feelings from its inception. Supporters were delighted with its full school day of seven periods, and the relatively modern equipment on its campus. It stood out in comparison with the cold concrete of many other schools in Gaza.

But Islamic fundamentalists condemned the American school's policy of having boys and girls in the same classes. Palestinian extremists attacked the school more than once.

But it was the Israeli military that destroyed the campus on Jan. 2, during the air component of the three-week operation in Gaza. The Israeli military said rockets had been launched from school grounds. Local residents disputed that, saying militants might have fired from the neighborhood, but not from the school.

Gaza's 'Best' School

Principal Rebhi Salem says Israel destroyed the best elementary and secondary school facility in Gaza, and its loss has been deeply felt. But school officials never considered abandoning their students. They managed to squeeze most of them into the old British Council building in Gaza for the rest of the school year:

Salem says the school had to give up many of its extracurricular activities — music, arts, computers — leaving students frustrated. The new building also eliminated the rotation of classes.

"We had students move around in the old building — teachers are stationed and the students move around. In this new building, the students are sitting seven periods a day in the same place, so they were frustrated. But it was OK," Salem says.

Now Salem is scrambling to put together a program for the coming school year.

Despite the cramped conditions and limited facilities, so far it looks like enrollment this year will be up over last year, with a waiting list to get into some grades.

Esrani says the hardships have strengthened the bond between the staff and the students, and that helped make the summer camp a success.

"Now we are saying goodbye for them, but you know, it's difficult to say goodbye because we really love them. We really love them," Esrani says. "The American International School — it's not only a building, it's a staff and it's the people working in it. That's the most important: We will survive."

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