Was the Gaza School Bombed by IAF a 'Legitimate Target'?

IDF says American college was used as rocket-launching site, a claim the school's director denies.

The Israel Defense Forces knows very well why, on January 3, at somewhere between 3:30 and 3:45 A.M., an Israel Air Force pilot bombed and destroyed the American International School, in the northern Gaza Strip.

"The American college in the area of Beit Lahiya was being used as a rocket-launching site, as well as a munitions storage dump," the IDF Spokesman told Haaretz in a written statement. "Therefore, it was a legitimate terrorist target."

Beyond the fact that the "college" is a school for children in grades 1-12, it's already far too late to try and prove a negative. Suffice to say that Ribhi Salem, a mathematician by training who has been the administrative director of the school since it began operating in 1999, was flabbergasted when he heard the charges of the IDF. According to him, no rockets or Qassams were ever fired from the school grounds. The school's building takes up three of the 36 dunams comprising the campus. Sure, rockets were sometimes fired from the surrounding hothouses and fields; but never from the school's property. Hamas had promised Salem that none of its armed fighters would enter the school.

And as for serving as a munitions dump? "That's the most ridiculous thing I have heard," says Salem. If that were the case, he points out, wouldn't there have been secondary explosions? Wouldn't a fire have broken out?"

And one other thing, he says, using the logic he shared with Senator John Kerry. The night before the attack, Salem Abu Qleiq, one of the school's guards, asked whether his wife and three children could come live in the school compound. "I told him I'd think about it and let him know in the morning." Abu Qleiq was one of six guards who worked in shifts 24/7; the security personnel were required to report anything out of the ordinary and call the police if necessary. If anyone had forced the school to allow ammunition to be stored there, would the 24-year old security guard - now dead - have considered the place a safe haven for him and his family? "I thank God I did not give my permission right away," Salem shudders.

It will cost $7.12 million to rebuild the school, $5.5 million for the structures alone. Like the thousands of buildings destroyed by the IDF in the Gaza Strip, there is nothing special about the piles of rubble that remain. Similarly, there is no reason to clear away this or the other debris, as long as Israel does not permit construction materials to enter the Strip. But it reflects the stories, contradictions, casualties and potential that characterize the reality of life in Gaza. When the Gazans say that "Israel is wreaking havoc precisely on those who are not Hamas," the case of the American School is one of many examples - and an especially ironic one, at that.

Salem sits in his office in the school's temporary quarters, in Gaza City's Rimal neighborhood and sums up the short history of the school that was "doomed from day one." The school opened on September 27, 2000, and "the next day, Ariel Sharon entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque plaza," on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, an act that sparked protests that marked the beginning of the second intifada. The school had been intended to serve as a symbol of confidence in the stable future of Gaza. The Oslo Accords, foreign aid, diplomatic missions, economic projects, the relocation of the offices of the Palestinian Authority and its then-chairman Yasser Arafat - all of these developments had led to an increase in the number of foreign nationals coming to live and work in Gaza. The school's godfather, Salem relates, was Arafat's chief economic advisor, Mohammed Rashid. He wanted to establish an infrastructure that would attract foreigners to live here with their families, rather than coming alone. An international school with an American curriculum was an important part of such an infrastructure. "Locals" who wanted - and could afford - to send their children were also invited to do so.

Rashid had already become known as the man behind the PA's economic monopolies. His Palestinian Commercial Services, the linchpin of the many cartels and slush funds that he administered for Arafat, financed the construction of the school, which had a Western look and feel to it: a full day of studies, class size limited to only 20 students at most, lots of open space, boys and girls in the same classrooms, universal and liberal education, English as the language of instruction (Arabic and Islamic or Christian studies were taught in Arabic), music, computers and physical education.

In fact, very few foreign children attended the school; the pupils were mostly from Gaza's upper middle class: the children of businessmen, of government officials and senior security officers, and even of those identified with the Palestinian left (who were theoretically Arafat and Rashid's political opponents). The subtext was clear: These people, the most influential in Gazan society, were casting a huge vote of non-confidence in the Palestinian educational system - in its curriculum, its teachers, its large classes (40 students), its separation of the sexes, its short school day.

"We did not try to improve the Palestinian educational system," says Salem, who was educated in Egypt, the United States and England and returned to Gaza in 1999 after an absence of 20 years. "Neither were we established to become a profit-making institution."

In order to deflect criticism of the school, it was decided to admit 10 children a year from the refugee camps on full scholarships for their entire school careers. In terms of the academic achievements of the pupils on scholarship, the program was successful, Salem says. But the intifada and its repercussions disrupted many plans and scuttled efforts to expand the scholarship program. The school's annual deficit of $1 million (out of a total budget of $2 million) was covered by the PA's Palestinian Investment Fund (which had replaced Rashid's Palestinian Commercial Services).

Any hopes engendered by the 2005 disengagement were quickly dashed: The chaos that reigned in 2006 and early 2007, and the kidnappings of foreign nationals, scared away the international faculty. Gazans who had studied abroad replaced them as teachers. This led to an immediate reduction in the annual deficit (to $300,000), as well as in tuition fees (to $3000 from $5000).

In April 2007, and January 2008, the school was vandalized by unknown perpetrators claiming to be acting out of Islamist motives. School buses were torched, computers stolen. The culprits were never apprehended. But in the wake of those attacks, the Hamas authorities pledged to protect the school, even though they were opposed to it ideologically.

Israel's bombing succeeded where the Muslim fundamentalists had failed. "One person said to me," Salem recalls, 'Do you know why all these calamities befell you?' Because your school was built with haram [religiously forbidden] money, the profits of the casino in Jericho."

Salem puts no stock in superstition; he continues to plan the school's future. Out of 230 pupils who attended the school before the bombing, 40 have left Gaza for the West Bank or overseas. "But we have not lost a single student to another school in Gaza," reports Salem proudly. "Cramped in a small and uncomfortable building, they're doing everything they can to salvage the academic year."

Muhammad Abu Qleiq, the father of the security guard who was killed, and who was driven out of the village of Nabi Rubeen (west of Ramle) in 1948, lives next door to the school. On that fateful Saturday morning, he was awakened by the sound of the explosion and felt his way through the darkness and dust to the ruins. His cries of "Salem, Salem" were swallowed up in the noise of more explosions and the engines of the jet fighters. When he was told that "the school had a munitions dump," he laughs bitterly: "Yes, and I removed it just before the attack."

Another son of his had been killed two years previously, when he was collecting the metal remains of a Qassam launcher in order to sell them. A missile fired from a drone hit and killed him. Another son of his was seriously wounded this past January 7, by shrapnel from a flechette missile fired by the IDF into populated areas of the northern Strip; he is still hospitalized in Egypt. In contrast to Ribhi Salem, Abu Qleiq is not optimistic. He says what they're all saying in Gaza these days: "As soon as we rebuild, the Israelis will come back and destroy everything."