Gaza youths return to class after war
Obama envoy expected to arrive for talks
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Tens of thousands of children returned to schools across Gaza yesterday after three weeks of war, playing games for some relief from the devastation and telling friends and teachers about the explosions they heard and relatives they lost.
In one classroom, signs with the names of three 14-year-old boys killed in the fighting were set on their desks - and their deskmates sat with stunned expressions next to the empty seats as the teacher encouraged the class to talk about their experiences.
"It's very hard when one used to see 30 students in class, and after what happened, I see 27," their teacher, Bassam Salha told the class at the UN's Fakhoura Elementary school. "We lived three weeks in sadness. I want you students to help me to get out of the sad mood I am in now."
Meanwhile, an Israeli foreign office official said President Obama's newly appointed special envoy to the Middle East is expected in Israel on Wednesday for talks on reviving Mideast peace negotiations after the Gaza fighting and on ensuring an arms blockade on the territory's Hamas rulers.
George J. Mitchell will meet with Israel's prime minister and other leaders, as well as the Palestinian president and prime minister in the West Bank, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because there has not yet been an announcement from Washington. The White House and State Department declined to comment.
Also yesterday, international aid organizations called for the unfettered entry of humanitarian and building supplies into Gaza. The territory's borders with Israel and Egypt have remained largely closed since a cease-fire took hold earlier this week, though supply convoys have been able to come through.
The border crossings are a central issue in efforts to work out a long-term cease-fire. Israel and Egypt had enforced a border blockade after the Hamas takeover in 2007, and have said they will open the gates only if Hamas accepts the deployment of border monitors, as a way of halting weapons smuggling.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said a Hamas delegation to Cairo would discuss this and other issues with Egyptian leaders to create a detailed agreement.
The Israeli army said more than 125 trucks a day - on some days nearly 200 - have entered Gaza since fighting ended on Jan. 17.
The reopening of schools, a week after a tentative cease-fire, marked a small step to normalcy for Gaza's 1.4 million residents. Israel had launched a 22-day air and ground assault aimed at stopping rocket fire by Gaza militants on southern Israel.
Some 280 children were among the 1,285 Palestinians killed in the offensive, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed during the fighting.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel has expressed regret over the deaths of civilians, but Israel blamed the deaths on Hamas, saying its fighters used civilians, schools and mosques to shield themselves.
Scores of schools run by the United Nations, which 200,000 children attend, reopened along with Gaza's public schools, which Hamas has run since seizing the territory in 2007.
"Getting these children back to school was our absolute priority," said John Ging, Gaza head of the UN agency that cares for Palestinian refugees.
In one school, first-grade girls with white ribbons in their hair swept shattered glass from the courtyard. More than 30 UN schools were damaged in the fighting.
The schools were also used as makeshift refuges by tens of thousands of Gazans fleeing clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in border areas, and by others whose homes were destroyed in the fighting.
At the Fakhoura Elementary school in the town of Jebaliya, volunteers from an Islamic aid organization led the children through a series of songs and clapping games in the courtyard.
Talking to his students, Salha recalled the three lost classmates, calling one, Ahed al-Quddas a "very naughty student, but he was lighthearted." Another, Bashar Naji, "was always giving the right answers," he added.
During the fighting, Palestinian militants fired rockets from next to the school, where hundreds of Gazans had huddled, witnesses said. Israeli forces responded with mortar shells that hit near the school and killed 42 people, most civilians.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said it would ask the Cabinet at its weekly meeting today to provide legal support to army officers in potential court cases resulting from the war's conduct.