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UN reopens schools in Gaza Strip

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Children return to schools in Gaza, with many attending classes in tents beside the rubble of the building

Schools in the Gaza Strip operated by the United Nations have reopened for the first time since the Israeli offensive against Hamas militants.

About 200,000 Palestinian children were expected to return to class.

In the later stages of the three-week conflict, many of the schools were used to shelter Palestinians whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

It follows a decision by Israel on Friday to lift a ban on UN and foreign aid workers entering the Gaza Strip.

The ban had been in place since early November, when tensions mounted between Israel and Hamas as the end of a six-month ceasefire approached.

Aid agencies welcomed the lifting of the restrictions, but said the task ahead was "enormous", with vast amounts of building materials alone needed to help rebuild schools, hospitals, mosques, and homes.

CONFLICT IN FIGURES
More than 1,300 Palestinians killed
Thirteen Israelis killed
More than 4,000 buildings destroyed in Gaza, more than 20,000 severely damaged
50,000 Gazans homeless and 400,000 without running water

However, a group of 25 South African medical staff who arrived in Egypt with 84 tonnes of relief supplies for Gaza have complained that they are being held up by Egyptian security officers at the Rafah border crossing.

The mission, which is supported by the South African government and the Council of Churches, is bringing medical equipment, generators and food.

The leader of the group, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, told the BBC that one of the accompanying doctors had been detained at Rafah because he had once been arrested in Pakistan at the house of an al-Qaeda suspect.

South Africa is seeking consular access to the doctor, Feroz Ganchi.

Trauma

The BBC's Jo Floto in Gaza says that when the UN-run schools re-opened on Saturday morning, children were swapping stories of what they had seen and heard during the past month.

Many had lost relatives, some had lost their homes, and in many classrooms there were empty desks, our correspondent says.

The Palestinian ministry of health estimates that more than 400 children were killed by the fighting and 1,800 wounded.

Children have been traumatised

It also says tens of thousands more may need urgent treatment for the psychological trauma they suffered during the conflict.

Thirty of the UN's 200 schools were damaged during the conflict, and many more were used to house tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced from their homes.

In one of the deadliest incidents, about 40 civilians were killed while sheltering at the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Initially, Israel accused Hamas of firing from the school and using civilians as "human shields", but later blamed a stray Israeli mortar instead. The UN has called for an independent investigation.

After a visit to the coastal territory on Friday, the top UN official responsible for emergency relief and humanitarian affairs told the BBC had had been shocked by the scale of destruction.

Sir John Holmes said it would have "disturbing" repercussions for the people of Gaza - with any private economic activity "set back by years or decades".

A humanitarian appeal was launched by a number of UK charities on Thursday to raise money for humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Smuggling tunnels

Meanwhile the new US President, Barack Obama, has asked King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for his country's support in halting the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Disasters Emergency Committee Gaza humanitarian appeal:
Launched by UK charities on 22 January to raise money for Gaza aid relief and reconstruction
Participants: Action Aid, British Red Cross, Cafod, Care International, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund, World Vision
Tel: 0370 60 60 900 or go to DEC website

Israel, which ended its 22-day offensive last Sunday, has warned of renewed military strikes on the Strip if smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border are reopened.

Palestinians argue that Israel's tight control of their borders means the tunnels are the only way they can get enough basic supplies - food and fuel - to survive.

Earlier, France announced that one of its warships had joined an international mission aimed at preventing arms smuggling, and was conducting surveillance from international waters in full co-operation with Egypt and Israel.

Israel said it launched its offensive to stop cross-border rocket attacks by militants in Gaza against its civilians.

Rocket attacks claimed the lives of three Israeli civilians during the conflict. Ten soldiers were also among the dead.

Palestinian medical officials said about 1,300 Palestinians were killed and thousands more were injured.


Update: In February 2009, the United Nations said that a clerical error had led it to report that Israeli mortars had struck a UN-run school in Jabaliya, Gaza, on 6 January killing about 40 people. Maxwell Gaylord, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Jerusalem, said that the Israeli Defense Force mortars fell in the street near the compound, and not on the compound itself. He said that the UN "would like to clarify that the shelling and all of the fatalities took place outside and not inside the school".



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