Israel's destruction of U.S.-style school shocks Gazans

ATATRA, Gaza Strip — When President George W. Bush visited the West Bank a year ago, Palestinian militants in Gaza vented their anger by ransacking the American International School here, smashing windows, stealing computers and torching a small fleet of buses.

It was just the latest episode in a decade-long string of bombings, kidnappings and lootings at the elite private school, which isn't connected to the U.S. government but has an American-style curriculum and coed, English-only classrooms, which have made it a favorite target of Islamic extremists.

On Jan. 3, the school finally was destroyed, but not by Islamist extremists. An Israeli airstrike flattened the two-story building and sprayed shards of steel and stone over the manicured lawns and soccer field. The night watchman was killed. Books, computers, science equipment and art supplies were crushed beneath the wreckage.

Within moments, Gaza's perhaps most pro-Western institution — a symbol of possibility in a sealed-off, war-torn land — was gone.

The Israeli army told McClatchy that its forces hit the school because Hamas militants had launched rockets from the grounds. School officials and neighborhood residents rejected that explanation, however, saying that the hilltop campus offered few places to hide and that the militants themselves often had attacked the campus.

"It seems that targeting our school . . . was one of the very few things that fanatic groups and Israel could agree on," said Sharhabeel al Zaeem, a member of the school's board of directors.

As school officials search for a temporary campus for their 230 students, the loss has stunned many Gazans. If any place should have been safe from Israel's war on Hamas, they say, it was the school, which for years flew an American flag over the main gate and whose graduates attend top universities in the United States, Canada and the Middle East.

Yet of the 25 schools and hospitals that Israeli forces hit during the 22-day war, according to a tally by Palestinian officials, only the American International School was destroyed. Days after the airstrike, Israeli bulldozers and tanks returned to the campus and plowed over the basketball court and the jungle gym, school officials and residents said.

Human rights experts are investigating whether Israel's attacks on Gaza schools — which as civilian property are protected by international humanitarian law — constitute war crimes.

"It's an iconic example of the disconnect between Israeli statements and the facts on the ground," John Ging, the head of the U.N. refugee agency in Gaza, said of the school strike. "Israel said it was striking against the institutions of terrorism, but this is a school that was teaching an American curriculum in English. There has to be an answer for this and all the other destruction and death."

Private funds and tuition fees finance the school, and the charge for high school, $5,000 a year, is the highest in Gaza. Thirty high-performing students from poor families receive scholarships, however, paid for in part by a $160,000 U.S. government grant.

American officials "were deeply saddened" by the loss of the school, said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem. "The impact of the fighting on civilians is very unfortunate."

Most Gaza schools are rudimentary places, cold concrete shells with few facilities. The American school was, by comparison, a palace. It was built with $7 million from the private Palestine Investment Fund, which imported stones from Hebron in the West Bank and, at one point, added $80,000 for tilting windows in the classrooms, so that a slight breeze could blow in from the Mediterranean.

The founders modeled the place on American schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and brought in foreign teachers to educate the children of diplomats and the Palestinian elite. There were computer and science labs, volleyball teams, an annual Halloween party and a library with 15,000 books.

In conservative Gaza, it was one of the only schools in which boys and girls sat side by side in classrooms, and older students even dared to date.

"This was not a base of terror," Zaeem said. "We are trying to bring the best education to Gaza."

The day after the school opened in September 2000, however, then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made his provocative visit to the disputed Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which triggered a Palestinian uprising. As violence surged throughout Gaza, the school's buses were pelted with stones.

"We were doomed from the beginning," said Ribhi Salem, the school's director.

After a Dutch principal and his Australian deputy were kidnapped briefly in 2005 by members of a militant group calling for the release of their jailed leader, foreign teachers began to leave. In April 2007, masked militants claiming allegiance to al Qaida stormed the school and set off a series of bombs, which caused widespread damage but no serious injuries.

Two months later, when the militant Islamic group Hamas took over Gaza, school officials hauled down the American flag.

Khalid Ghanan, a senior who's on a full academic scholarship, sat in his family's living room in the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza one morning last week — a day he should have been in class — and cursed Israeli forces and Gaza militants.

"The militants are stupid. They're unhappy with this place because of the word 'American' and they don't even know what it's doing for the students," the poised 17-year-old said. "And Israel bombed us just because they don't want us to be well educated."

Most children in Bureij attend U.N.-run schools, and Ghanan, who hopes to attend Birzeit University in the West Bank in the fall, liked bragging to neighborhood boys about his school.

"They always want to know, 'Do you have girls in your classes? What do they wear?' " he said, grinning. "I tell them about the things we have, and they can't believe that exists in Gaza."

The school was closed for the Christmas break when Israel launched its air assault on Gaza on Dec. 27. After several days of strikes nearby, the night watchman asked whether he could bring his family to stay with him at the school, thinking that it would be safe from attack. Salem refused, citing school rules.

The next morning, at about 3 a.m., two Israeli warplanes bombarded the building, collapsing it "like a biscuit," said Ramadan Sabah, a 23-year-old who lives in a shack 200 yards from the school.

"They had no reason to hit the school," Sabah said. He and three other residents said militants hadn't fired rockets from anywhere in the area.

The watchman was killed, and Salem's decision probably saved the lives of the man's family. The British-trained educator doesn't feel much relief, however.

"It's really very sad to see Israel target a place that Gaza needs to reach a common understanding between cultures and promotes openness and diversity," Salem said. "We should have a hundred schools like ours in Gaza, not one."


Mosques destroyed by Israeli strikes, Gazans pray outdoors

It only took a day: Gaza's tunnels are back in business

Did the Israelis use white phosphorus in populated areas?