GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Tens of thousands of children wearing uniforms and carrying satchels flocked back to schools in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, days after Israel ended its fierce military operation against the territory's militant Hamas rulers.
Children returning to school presents another step back to normality for Gaza's 1.4 million residents, seven days after a cease-fire was called, ending Israel's 3-weeek air and ground assault in the tiny coastal territory, aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel.
The onslaught killed 1,285 Palestinians, including some 280 children, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed during the fighting, according to the government.
Along with Gaza's public schools, which have been run by Hamas since it took over the territory in 2007, the scores of schools run by the United Nations re-opened their doors to the 200,000 children who attend them.
"Of course, the first thing we have to do is a roll call to see who has, and who has not, survived the conflict," said U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness.
More than 30 U.N. schools were damaged in the fighting. The schools were also used as makeshift refuges by thousands of Gazans fleeing clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in border areas, and by others whose homes were destroyed in the fighting.
In the U.N.'s Fakhoura Elementary school in the northern Gaza Strip town of Jebalia, three chairs in an eighth-grade class were adorned with the names of students who were killed during the offensive.
During the fighting, Palestinian militants fired rockets from next to the school, where hundreds of Gazans had huddled, according to witnesses. Israeli forces responded by lobbing back mortars that hit near the school and killed around 40 people, mostly civilians, according to Palestinian health officials.
Schoolteacher Bassam Salkha told his students to show their determination to live through studying hard. Other teachers took their students to play games in the courtyard, seeing who could clap the loudest.
The U.N.'s relations with Israel have been strained, most recently because Israeli military shelling in Gaza damaged around 50 buildings belonging to the international organization. Among them was the organization's main compound in Gaza City, which the U.N. and human rights groups said was hit by white phosphorous shells, setting its food warehouses ablaze.
The Israeli army says it has launched an internal investigation into whether its troops inappropriately used phosphorus shells in civilian areas. The intensely hot munitions are used to create smoke screens and to illuminate the night.
Many children were still afraid of going to school on Saturday, fearing renewed shelling.
One man accompanied his two grandchildren, who carried heavy school bags. "They said, granddad, take us to school," he said.