Israel-Gaza Conflict: Education becomes latest casualty of war for Palestine’s youth

With demolished classrooms and schools, displaced teachers and hundreds of thousands of children without access to learning, education in the besieged enclave has become the last casualty of the Israel-Gaza war, aid agencies have warned.

More than 100 days of intense Israeli airstrikes on the besieged Gaza Strip have demolished schools and classrooms, displaced or killed teachers, and shuttered access to learning for the hundreds of thousands of children coping with daily horrors as education becomes the latest casualty of the Middle Eastern war.

On the International Day of Education – marked annually on January 24 – regional and international aid agencies warn of the long-term devastation for the youth of Palestine – hundreds of thousands of whom face a critical gap in education and no access to the safe haven of schools – adding to the legacy of the trauma of the war.

A rescuer carries a child as he walks amid the rubble of a school hit during an Israeli strike before the start of a four-day truce in the battles between Israel and Hamas militants, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 24, 2023. (File photo: AFP)

Before the war, the population of the Gaza Strip stood at 2.2 million – more than half of those were school-age children, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry’s latest statistics.

Almost four months after the Hamas attack on southern Israel that killed around 1,200 people, Israel’s offensive has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children.

But for the children that remain, aid agencies warn many are finding it difficult to differentiate between life and death as hope slips further away. Adding to the forced displacement of Palestinian youth and their lack of access to basic necessities, they are enduring violence, loss of family and friends, bodily injuries and amputations, all while battling trauma from the crisis.

As of January 8, 2024, the war has impacted over 433,000 students and 16,000 teachers, according to data shared by UNICEF with Al Arabiya English.

Of these, 4,275 students aged between six and 17 have been killed, alongside 227 teachers. At least 90 percent of school buildings are being used by internally displaced Palestinians at four times their capacity, according to the UNICEF estimate.

Educational institutions, which have historically provided a safe space with familiar surroundings and peers, have become the latest disruptive element in the lives of thousands of young people in the Middle Eastern enclave.

No schools operational

Around 270 schools that were previously operational in the Gaza Strip are either partially or fully damaged, Hani Shehada, the head of the Palestinian office of the Education Above All (EAA) foundation told Al Arabiya English.

Some of the schools that are still standing are being used as shelters against Israeli bombing, he said speaking from Paris, adding that no education was happening in these structures.

Palestinians take shelter in a UN-run school from the ongoing Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip in Nuiserat refugee camp on Saturday, October 14, 2023. (File photo: AP)

The Qatari foundation was founded by the former first lady of the Gulf state, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, in 2012. Since then, it has been tasked with providing education-based assistance to marginalized communities in nearly 60 countries.

Following the outbreak of the war in Gaza, EAA launched a program to provide mental health support, hot meals, and essential hygiene products alongside international partners, including UNICEF and UNFPA.

“The children and youth are suffering from trauma that I’m unsure happened in history,” Shehada said.

Acknowledging that wars in the past have had long-term impacts on children and their development, Shehada added that “the level of destruction, the level of targeting, the level of immunity that the Israelis are having – with the killing of civilians, of children, of women; there is no protected or safe area.”

“The drones are 24 hours over you and, in any minute, you can die,” he said.

The deadly war was the result of an escalation in tensions between Israel and the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas, whose attack left over 1,000 dead and over 200 captive in Gaza.

Some of the hostages have been released following various mediation attempts. Israel is currently bombing Gaza under the pretext of eliminating Hamas – a US-designated terrorist group – and rescuing the remaining hostages currently held in Gaza.

Since Shehada heads the Palestinian office, he is stationed between Gaza and Doha for a major part of his job. But shortly before the outbreak of the war, Shehada was abroad – escaping what could have been a deadly affair.

“People are losing their sons, their daughters, their fathers, their mothers, their limbs,” he said, expounding on how the long-lasting trauma that war can leave on children.

Some of the activities commissioned by EAA and its partners are meant to “give them a breath” and temporarily allow downtime for those impacted by the daily horrors of war.

“When they play, when they sing, when they do something, they may forget about everything around them for a short time. And this could uplift them for a short period,” he said, clarifying that long-term “specialized interventions” will have to be provided when mobilization of resources is possible.

Palestinian children watch a performance during an activity aimed to support their mental health, amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas, on December 18, 2023 in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (File photo: AFP)

“We believe that psychosocial support, mental health support, recreational activities could bring some hope to the people. Because the worst thing is losing hope. When you lose hope, then life and death is the same,” Shehada said.

‘I pictured him becoming a doctor’

One of those losing hope is Suha Nasser, a beneficiary of EAA foundation’s Al Fakhoora Scholarship Program. In October, her husband and son were killed during an Israeli airstrike – and almost died herself.

She met her husband Mohammed while at university in 2018 where she was studying physiotherapy and enrolled in the Education Above All foundation’s Al Fakhoora Scholarship Program.

They married on 30 September, 2019, and began a long struggle for a child, which saw the couple embark on fertility treatment in Cairo in 2023.

Their son Ahmed came into the world via a cesarean section after four years of longing – and a pregnancy scare that led to doctors advising bed rest for Nasser’s final trimester.

Suha Nasser, her husband Mohammed and their child Ahmed. (Supplied: EAA)

“I took pictures of Ahmed every day and watched him grow up,” she said in a statement shared by the EAA. “I imagined him starting his first day of school, then envisioned him as a college student. I pictured him becoming a doctor or an engineer, a husband, and a father. I painted a beautiful future for my child in my imagination.”

“Then the war broke out on 7 October and our lives were turned upside down.”

Within four days of the war starting, Nasser’s home had become a refuge for over 60 people – including her husband’s relatives. Then, on the 12th day of the conflict – on October 19, 2023 – her world turned upside down.

“I had fed Ahmed, kissed him, and put him to bed… seconds later, the house was bombed, and I immediately saw total darkness.”

Nasser was pulled from the rubble and taken to Kamal Adwan Hospital, where she waited in bed all night, hoping to receive news about her husband and son.

“The next morning, my father and mother came with pale faces. As soon as I saw them, I knew that a calamity had befallen my life forever.”

“They told me that they had both died – my son was just five months and three weeks old at the time. I felt my world come crumbling down.”

Suha Nasser and her child Ahmed. (Supplied: EAA)

Nasser’s story is one that echoes throughout Gaza. For many other mothers, their children’s future remains unwritten.

In addition to the death rate among Gaza residents, most of the 2.3 million habitants are also threatened by displacement, water and food shortages, and lack of access to basic necessities like washrooms.

Factors including the lack of basic waste disposal and long queues to use scarcely available restrooms, are adding to the plight of children whose daily lives have been transformed to one of survival amid death and destruction.

The lack of access to a safe space like an educational institution, witnessing deaths among family, and the high rate of explosives-led disability have left a lot of youth without hope, Shehada said.

Many of the volunteers under EAA’s wing have supposedly come together to offer community services, utilizing their existing knowledge and skill base to serve their families and neighbors during these times.

Is there a future for Gaza’s youth?

Shehada said the future of Palestinian youth is uncertain.

“Many people don’t want to think about it because there is grief. They want the war to stop, and they are dreaming of getting back to their homes,” Shehada said.

As the war crossed the 100-day mark, the EAA official said many of the youth “don’t know if they are going to make it to the end of the war.”

Apart from the immediate impact, Shehada also worries about rebuilding after the war is over, warning a return to anything like normality will be a long one.

Palestinian children, who fled their houses due to Israeli strikes, play as they shelter in a United Nations-run school, in Gaza City, October 12, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)

Road to recovery ‘long’

From clearing rubble to rebuilding educational institutions, Shehada, who is in touch with local officials, said the road to recovery is long.

Rubble removal alone can reportedly take up to two years.

And since school structures are currently used as shelter for those who lost their homes, it is nearly impossible to use the still-standing institutions for education, Shehada said.

Shehada shared with Al Arabiya English some unique ways in which the EAA is identifying cost-effective pre-built structures that can temporarily replace permanent buildings since they can be shipped and set up without large machinery and workforce.

Despite all of the measures being planned for Gaza at the end of the war, Shehada said that the war will have a “cross-generational impact.”

Many children in Palestinian territories apparently identify their age in the number of wars versus years on the Gregorian calendar, the EAA official said.

For example, someone born in 2006 would have experienced at least six wars and would be ‘six wars old’ – painting a grim reality of life in Palestinian territories.

The latest escalation and its impact are not new for Shehada who has previously seen the effects of war in Syria and Afghanistan, two other troubled states where the EAA has a presence. The NGO said it is replicating the steps it took in these countries in Gaza.

Minority groups suffer more trauma

Witnessing traumatic scenes coupled with the lack of space and time to interact with their peers, especially for children with disabilities, can lead to negative immediate and long-term impact, a UNICEF official told Al Arabiya English.

The regional Chief of Advocacy for UNICEF Ammar Ammar said that the impact of the lack of educational avenues and the already limited access offered to disabled children, are increasing the trauma experienced by young Palestinians.

Palestinian girl Eman Al-Kholi, whose limb was amputated after being wounded in an Israeli strike that killed her parents, looks on as she sits in a wheelchair at the European Hospital, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, December 28, 2023. ( File photo: Reuters)

Additionally, Ammar said in the local culture which favors boys over girls, “the impact is more severe,” since education was already access-limited previously. For those with mobility restrictions and other assistive devices like hearing aids, the UNICEF official said the exposure to violence will heighten the risk of children developing mental health problems.

Ammar said he expects an additional burden on the educational sector, which will be running overtime to ensure continuity when the war ends, since many of the buildings are shuttered due to damage from shelling.

Working alongside partner organizations, Ammar said UNICEF is looking into online platforms that can replace schools.

Historically, electricity has been periodic at best, with Israel holding control of the resource. After the outbreak of the war, basic access to water and electricity has dwindled, leading many to rely on generators, the gas for which is also severely depleted across the Strip.

Consequently, internet connection within Gaza is also nearly facing a round-the-clock outage.

Possibility of war spreading across borders

Many experts that Al Arabiya English has spoken to in the course of the war since October 7 have cited the possibility of the war spreading across borders, from Gaza to neighboring Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and possibly, Iran.

With the Iran-backed Houthis from Yemen attacking ships in the Red Sea, allegedly in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, to the Lebanese Hezbollah’s frequent rocket attacks on Israel, there are multiple signs of an escalating or long-drawn-out war.

Yemenis brandishing their guns chant slogans during a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza, in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on December 2, 2023. (File photo: AFP)

Ammar said that the organization is taking steps to ensure continuity of support in the event of a spread in the war that is largely now contained in Gaza.

“We are preparing assets, positioning in case something happens, that we have very swift and smooth and unscathed operations,” Ammar said, adding that UNICEF continues to urge that steps are taken in the interest of preserving the lives of children.

‘Stacked against’ the uneducated

Another regional organization, the Dubai-based Al Ghurair Foundation (AGF), is trying to upskill those with formal education to be able to convert into jobs.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English during the earlier stages of the Israeli war in Gaza, CEO of the foundation Dr Sonia Ben Jaafar, said education was taking a “hit on multiple fronts.”

In the event of a humanitarian crisis, like the one caused by the war in Gaza, Ben Jaafar said immediate needs like food and water security take precedence over education – “education falls by the wayside for however long, especially with protracted crises.”

The AGF official cautioned against a long-term neglect of education. “We need to advocate for education even if it is in very difficult and complex conditions.”

Children take refuge inside the Shifa Hospital during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza City on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (File photo: AP)

Ben Jaafar said the privately funded organization has helped over 110,000 Arab youth since its inception in 2015. The AGF facilitates access to quality education, supports in employment, and bridges skill gaps alongside their partners.

The UAE’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, alongside universities and NGOs, including UNICEF and UNHCR, are partnered with the organization to further their reach.

For example, an educational and skills development program, ‘Nomu’, was launched in 2022 with the aim of reaching 25,000 youths by 2025 in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. It hopes to provide support for young entrepreneurs and professionals, addressing the challenges of youth unemployment.

Lebanon and Jordan are home to some of the largest Palestinian refugee populations, where estimates show that less than seven percent of youth in refugee camps graduate high school.

Ben Jaafar said the vulnerable populations in these areas will be left behind in a knowledge-based economy.

“When you’re looking at these vulnerable populations and you have a large mass of them who are not able to get the basics for skills and knowledge, what are they going to do in a knowledge economy?”

“We’re now being driven by AI; this isn’t even the Internet anymore. This is generative technology. So, we have to think in a whole different way. We have to move fast. And with that, we are going to be leaving them further and further behind if we don’t bring them along and make an effort,” Ben Jaafar said.

The AGF executive also highlighted the security threat posed by young people who are unemployed.

“It’s a very dangerous security issue. It’s a security threat. You cannot give people nothing to do and nothing to hope for, …and expect them not find frustration,” Ben Jaafar said.

Children embrace as people inspect the damage following Israeli bombardment in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip on December 29, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (File photo: AFP)

“What we want to do is make sure that we don’t enter that zone. We want them to be able to enter a zone where they can find solutions,” she added, citing the example of a Jordan-based youth who developed rooftop farming for herself and her community after attending a session on harnessing water.

The foundation supports youth in Gaza who “would love to be a part of the gig economy,” Ben Jaafar said.

“The world is stacked against people who are not educated,” she said, adding that the world needs multisector collaboration to tackle these urgent situations.