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UN plans to address Gaza's schooling shortage have hit a wall, with Israel banning the construction of two new

The Israeli siege on Palestinian education continues

Israel bans construction of two new schools on site it says could be targeted in strikes on Hamas

By Selim Saheb Ettaba - GAZA CITY

schools on a site it says could be targeted in strikes on Hamas.

The two schools at the centre of the dispute between the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Israeli authorities are part of the agency's plans for 12 new schools in the Gaza Strip.

At the moment, little more than mounds of sand and some prefabricated building materials mark the site where UNRWA wants to put the new facilities.

The plot was once the location of the preventative security headquarters, which fell into the hands of Hamas fighters after they routed the rival Fatah faction in bloody internecine fighting in June 2007.

Little over a year later, the entire building was reduced to rubble when Israeli forces bombed it during Operation Cast Lead, which lasted from late December 2008 to January 2009.

Now, a lone guard watches over the precious building materials that UNRWA, which cares for Palestinian refugees, has stacked at the site.

"We saw an opportunity for building on the site of a security installation two civilian schools to educate thousands of children," UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP.

The agency has launched a series of projects since Israel announced it would ease a blockade on the Gaza Strip it imposed in 2006, after the kidnap of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Gaza militants.

Israel tightened the blockade in 2007, after Hamas routed Fatah from Gaza, but bowed to international pressure after a May 2010 raid on aid ships attempting to break the siege, agreeing to loosen the restrictions.

Israel agreed to allow the import of construction materials for projects supervised by the international community, allowing UNRWA to start addressing Gaza's school shortage.

The agency already accommodates over 200,000 students in Gaza, 90 percent of them studying in schools that run double shifts to expand access.

But with building material trickling into Gaza and construction running at a slow pace, UNRWA had to turn away some 40,000 schoolchildren at the start of the school year in September.

Gunness said the two new facilities could accommodate some 4,000 children in a district where there are no UNRWA schools, but in October Israel said the construction could not proceed because of Hamas activity in the area.

"In the list of the 12 schools that they gave us, we allowed all the schools and only two of them were close to a Hamas implantation," said Major Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

"We have information that there is still activity of Hamas there in that place and because we don't want the Hamas later on to use the schools and the children as human shields... that's why we didn't allow them to build," Inbar told AFP.

During the Gaza war, Israel and Hamas accused each other of using civilians as human shields.

Residential buildings, some still blackened and pockmarked by the impact of the blast that destroyed the former security headquarters, surround the site.

Several bearded men clear debris from the ground of a grey building damaged by the attack, while children file out of a nearby red-brick government school.

A few dozen metres (yards) away lies Al Quds hospital, where France is upgrading the emergency services unit, with Israeli permission.

But despite the civilian buildings the surround the site, Inbar said any school there would be at risk.

"If there is Hamas activity, they can shoot rockets from there and then when we will attack in response to their shooting, we could hurt the people there," he said.

In January 2009, an Israeli strike next to an UNRWA school in the northern Gaza Strip killed 43 people, in one of the bloodiest episodes in the three-week war.

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