KIBBUTZ SAAD, Israel – Thousands of Israeli children in areas near the Gaza Strip went back to school Monday after spending the summer in bomb shelters as rockets and mortars rained on their communities during the 50-day Israel-Hamas war, while schools in Gaza remained shuttered as the territory recovered from the fighting.
The start of school brought a sense of joy and excitement to rocket-scarred communities in southern Israel, but the signs of the fighting remained fresh. In the southern city of Ashdod, employees at the "Pashosh" kindergarten, which was struck by a rocket, removed shrapnel marks off the walls and slides ahead of the students' arrival.
"We are a little scared but we are excited," said Ronit Bart, a resident of Kibbutz Saad and an English teacher in its school. "A lot of children in our area really need to go back to a routine."
Her 11-year-old daughter, Shani Bart, said it felt a "little bit weird" to suddenly be going back to school.
"There were some difficult times and we didn't leave our houses at all," she said.
President Reuven Rivlin visited the kibbutz, which is located close to the Gaza border, to offer his support.
Until a cease-fire halted the war last week, thousands of residents of border communities like Saad remained indoors or left their homes for safer areas further away from Gaza to escape rocket and mortar fire.
Many residents of Nahal Oz, a community close to the Gaza frontier where a 4-year-old boy was killed by a Palestinian mortar shell, are hesitant about coming back. The Education Ministry said about a dozen families still had not returned. Their children have been placed in alternate schools for the time being.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited a school in Sderot, a Gaza border town that has been hard hit by Palestinian fire. He urged the children to study hard and said "we will make sure to provide you with knowledge and provide you with security."
Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended truce last Tuesday. The cease-fire brought an immediate end to the fighting but left key issues unresolved, such as Hamas' demand for the lifting of an Israel-Egyptian blockade of Gaza and the reopening of Gaza's air and seaports. Israel wants Hamas to disarm and the return of bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in the war. A new round of indirect talks is expected to begin later this month in Egypt.
The war killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, three-quarters of whom were civilians and at least 494 children, according to Palestinian and U.N. estimates. Israel disputes the figures and estimates that at least half of those killed were militants, though it has not provided firm evidence to back its claims. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians, including a Thai worker, were killed.
Hamas and other Gaza militants fired 4,591 rockets and mortars at Israeli cities during the fighting, mostly in the south. The Israeli military, meanwhile, carried out more than 5,000 airstrikes and other attacks.
The Israeli attacks damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in Gaza, and an estimated 250,000 people took refuge in more than 100 U.N. schools turned into makeshift shelters. With tens of thousands of people still in the shelters and fighting still raging, education officials delayed the start of the school year last week.
"I hope the school will open soon to complete our education, just like the world's children and Jewish children," said Mohammad Amara, a 13-year-old boy staying in a Gaza City school.
Ziad Thabet, a Gaza Education Ministry official, said classes in the strip are set to begin on Sept. 14. The U.N. said most of the displaced were to be evacuated to temporary housing by Monday afternoon, but Thabet said the schools need to undergo repairs before they can be used.
At least 223 Gaza schools, either run by the U.N. refugee agency or the Hamas government, were hit in the fighting, including 25 that are too damaged for use. Israel has accused Hamas of using civilian buildings such as schools for military purposes.
"I have two children who are supposed to go to school, and a child who is supposed to go to kindergarten. They ask me 'when we will go to school?'," said Haitham Abu Attah, another displaced Gazan.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.