Israel, Hamas war deals blow to schools in Gaza .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:none; color:#000000;} .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink:hover { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline; color:#990000;} BEIT LAHIYA - The Israeli war in Gaza has caused a painful setback to the territory’s already struggling education system. Israel says militants used some schools as cover for their attacks, but Gaza educators say Israel has no proof to back up its claim.

The jewel of Gaza's bare-bones education system - a U.S.-style school on lush grounds overlooking the Mediterranean - is now a mound of broken concrete. The territory's only laboratory for genetic testing, at a Gaza university, lies in ruins.

With 37 primary and secondary schools destroyed or damaged by air strikes, and 18 others still serving as refugee shelters, learning in Gaza has become even more of a struggle. Israel says the attacks on schools struck militants and a weapons lab during its three-week war against Hamas. Gaza educators say Israel hasn't provided proof to back up its claims, adding the strikes on some of its best educational institutions set back efforts to develop the impoverished territory.

Even before the offensive, overcrowding had forced most of Gaza's 380 primary and secondary schools to run morning and afternoon shifts of no more than four hours each to accommodate 450,000 students. The American International School of Gaza, near the northern town of Beit Lahiya, stood apart from the rest. Sitting on an 8-acre plot, it was an oasis in dusty and crowded Gaza, with its lawns, palm trees and roses.

Founded by Gaza academics in 1999, the school taught in English, followed a U.S. curriculum and offered field hockey and American football along with academics, to children from kindergarten through 12th grade.

"This was a great school," said Shareefa el-Helou, 17, who now crams for SATs in math and biology at an uncle's home because her family's apartment was damaged in the fighting. "We used to do fun days, sports days, bake sales."

Since 2004, suspected Islamic extremists repeatedly targeted the school, presumably over its Western outlook and coed system. Assailants burned five of the six school buses and mortar attacks destroyed the administration offices, art room and cafeteria. Still, the school kept going. This year it had 220 students, who were on Christmas break when the offensive began Dec. 27. A week later, an Israeli warplane flattened the two-story school building.

During a recent visit, glass shards were scattered across the ground. Tank treads were still visible, leading from a crushed gate to a flattened slide in the kindergarten playground. Shredded books stuck out from rubble. A copy of the 2006-07 yearbook lay amid broken concrete, dusty but intact. "Our leaders of tomorrow," read the caption under the school photo, showing students sitting on bleachers, dressed in white shirts and navy pants.

Questions linger
Israel's military says Gaza militants used the schools to launch rockets, turning it into a legitimate target. Some Israelis, however, question the scope of the destruction.

Dovish former Education Minister Yossi Sarid said Gaza's schools should have been off limits unless they were proven militant strongholds. "Since I'm not convinced that this was the case, as far as I'm concerned schools and other educational institutions are not targets for soldiers to shoot at," he said.

Mohammed Nairab, the principal of the international school, said he couldn't prove militants didn't use the compound during the break. But he said the destruction was counterproductive.

In another strike, Israeli jes hit the science and engineering labs of the Islamic University in Gaza City, the territory's oldest and biggest college-level institution, with more than 20,000 students. Israel targeted the school because of military activities there, Israeli government spokesman said. University President Kamalain Shaath challenged Israel to prove that arms were produced in the labs, which he said provided unique services to the community, such as genetics and environmental testing. He claimed Israel was trying to hold Gaza back by targeting some of its most advanced institutions.