Marking the first day of the new school year in Gaza, dozens of children lined up in the courtyard early on Sunday morning to sing the Palestinian national anthem.
But this year, class did not begin.
Instead, the youngsters then recited the opening verse of the Koran — the Fatiha — to honour the more than 2,100 Palestinians killed in a 48-day Israeli military operation against Gaza.
They then returned to classrooms packed to the brim with families displaced by the conflict, in the UN school being used as a shelter in the north of Gaza City.
“I don’t want to have to live in a school,” said 11-year-old Amin al-Kilani, whose family was driven out of their home in Beit Hanun in northern Gaza after Israel bombarded the area.
“I want to learn here, then just go home,” he said.
Amin is one of nearly half a million Gazan children who will not be able to return to class this year, according to the UN children’s fund UNICEF.
“Classes will remain closed in the conflict-stricken coastal enclave, denying these nearly 500,000 children their right to education,” UNICEF said in a statement Sunday.
At the UN school’s symbolic start to the new academic year, a young girl in a party dress recited a poem. A boy in shorts and glasses sang a popular song by the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol.
Proud mothers looked on, some taking pictures of videos with their mobile phones.
A few children appeared to enjoy the spectacle, clapping along, but were visibly disappointed not to be going back to school.
“I was looking forward to school beginning again so I could finish my tawjihi exams (the Palestinian high school diploma),” said 17-year-old Wujud Zayeda.
“This year it’s different. One of my friends was injured in a strike near her home. I’m really upset, we just want to learn.”
Mother Hanan Matar, 48, was living in the school with her nine children.
“Even the right of our children to study is denied,” she sighed.
Schools run by the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) are occupied by more than 300,000 internally displaced Gazans, half of whom are children, UNICEF says.
With so many people using the educational facilities as living space, it is impossible for lessons to resume as normal.
A quarter of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million have been made homeless by the fighting.
Of the more than 2,100 dead, some 478 were children, according to the UN.
“This has been a dangerous summer for Palestinian children in Gaza who could not even go outside to play. School is a vital lifeline to these traumatized children, which plays a key role in their healing,” the joint statement from UNICEF, UNESCO and Save the Children said.