In Gaza, UN classrooms become dormitories as Palestinians flee conflict

47,000 Palestinians are now camped out in the 58 education establishments

Reuters May 18, 2021
Sons of Palestinian man Ihab El-Attar, who, according to him, lost four members of his family when an Israeli strike hit their house and injured him, play at a United Nations-run school where they take refuge, in Gaza City May 18, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

UN run schools in Gaza look very little like places of learning these days in the midst of a conflict between Israel and Palestinian armed groups that is in its second week.

Laundry is hung on makeshift washing lines, mothers scrub infants at bathroom sinks and classrooms have become dormitories with desks stacked up and blankets spread on the floor.

For Palestinians crammed into this narrow strip of land, wedged between Israel, the Mediterranean and a small stretch of Egypt, there are few places to seek shelter from bombardment.

So, many have fled to schools run by the UN refugee agency UNRWA, which estimates that 47,000 Palestinians are now camped out in the 58 education establishments it runs in the enclave.

"We have quit without taking mattresses or anything. We left the house as it is, and we escaped," said Hassan Haboub, a father of nine whose family have made a temporary home in the four-storey complex of Gaza City's Beach elementary school.

"We have nothing but UNRWA," said Haboub, whose family fled to Gaza when they became refugees in 1948 from Ashkelon, a city that lies north of Gaza's border.

Israeli airstrikes have pounded Gaza day and night since the conflict flared on May 10, while in Israeli cities, like Ashkelon, residents race for shelters or safe rooms, if they have them, every few hours or minutes to flee militant rockets.

Nearly 450 buildings in Gaza, an enclave that is home to 2 million people, have been destroyed or badly damaged, the United Nations says. Most of the 52,000 who have been displaced are in UN schools, it says.

Israel says it only hits legitimate military targets, gives advanced warning if it targets residential buildings that it says are used by militants and does everything it can to prevent civilian casualties.

"Hamas shoots its rockets at Israel out of mosques, out of schools, out of playgrounds, out of built-up areas, precisely to make it more difficult for us to try and target them," Mark Regev, senior adviser to Israel's prime minister, told Britain's LBC radio on Sunday.


UN officials say the destruction of residential tower blocks and other buildings has left thousands of people with nowhere to live in this 365 sq km enclave that is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.

"Yes, in some cases they warned them, they have protected their lives but they are homeless and need to completely rebuild their life," Matthias Schmale, the director UNRWA operations in Gaza, told Reuters.

He said even U.N. facilities had suffered some collateral damage. He pointed to a boundary wall of UNRWA's complex in Gaza City which has fractured and cracked walls of offices, saying a blast struck a nearby road, sending lumps of concrete and part of a wrecked car flying into the facility.

In Israel, militant rockets have slammed into residential and other buildings. While a national system sends warnings via sirens and social media, as well as on radio and television, it sometimes only gives people a few seconds to act.

In one Israeli community near Gaza, a woman texted a friend saying she had received six alerts in one day and three in single night. "Makes nine alerts in 24 hours," she wrote before breaking off with the words: "Just now, one alert."

Israel says 12 people, including two children, have been killed in the conflict. Palestinians put their death toll at 213, including 61 children.

In the Gaza enclave, UNRWA said it had adapted many schools to cope with receiving displaced people after the last major conflict in 2014 between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that has ruled since 2007.

Israel, the United States and European Union deem Hamas a terrorist organisation, a designation the group rejects.

Ihab El-Attar, who usually lives in Beit Lahiya near Gaza's border with Israel, fled his home to UN facilities three times before: in 2014 and during fighting in 2008-9 and in 2012.

Once again, in 2021, he has sought shelter in a UN school. This time, he said his house was destroyed in a bombardment that killed four members of his family - it was not immediately possible to verify details of that strike.

"Every time there is a war, they drive us out," Attar said, speaking from his latest shelter at Beach elementary school after his home was hit early on Friday morning. "Four wars drove us out from the same house."