School started this week, but new fees to be imposed upon Palestinian refugees by the United Nations may leave more children playing in Gaza's dangerous and dirty streets than learning in the classroom.
Poverty and despair have long been hallmarks of Palestinian refugee camps spread across the Middle East; but so, too, since 1950, has been the free provision of basic services by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
So news of the unprecedented school fees in the Gaza Strip - one of the most densely populated enclaves in the world, under control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) - has caused anger and brought children into the street.
With families running out of reserves of food and money, and with little respite from a tough Israeli closure that has entered its second month and keeps tens of thousands of Palestinians from jobs in Israel, UN fees are seen as a huge burden.
Children are going to class for the moment, but as soon as UNRWA tries to collect the 50 shekel ($14) fee per child, parents say, they will be kept at home. A student strike is planned for Sept. 9, the same day the UN will be appealing for more donor funds in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
"What do you expect from someone like me, who is borrowing money to feed my kids?" asks Ahmed Atta, father of five, sitting outside a hole-in-the-wall shop on a crushed egg crate. Cars lurching past on the lumpy sand road stir up more dust. Mr. Atta's job at an Israel butcher shop in Tel Aviv now seems a distant memory.
"The next step is they will make us pay for water," adds policeman Jaber Abu Lebda, father of 11 children. The mounting hardships here make fertile ground for elaborate conspiracy theories, which pit America, Israel, and hard-line Zionists - in cahoots with the UN, of course - against the Palestinians. "What do they want from us?" asks Mr. Lebda.
With Secretary of State Madeleine Albright due to make her first visit to the Middle East next Wednesday, the plight of the refugees - and how that translates into deepening mistrust of all outsiders - points to the risks of any further collapse of the peace process. (Bombings yesterday in Jerusalem lead Israel to reclose its borders.)
Senior UNRWA officials admit that the school fees, staff cuts, and the freeze on hospital reimbursements and referrals announced Aug. 19 place a serious burden on the 3.4 million refugees in the region.
Despite their heavy political costs in the camps, though, the measures will only make up one-third of the $20 million shortfall for 1997. Risks are highest in the West Bank and the sealed Gaza Strip. "This is happening at the worst possible time, but it is far from inevitable," says Peter Hanson, the UNRWA commissioner-general. The UN has been sounding the alarm of the likely shortfall for a year, with little result.
"With $20 million, we could reverse all these decisions," Mr. Hanson says. "It's peanuts when you look at the costs of scraping through, but at least it will help demonstrate to donors and refugees that this is a moment of truth. I hope they will open their eyes."
Donors have kept the same level of funding, but the needs of the refugees have expanded as quickly as the population growth rate, which at 4.2 percent in Gaza may be the highest in the world. This year 11,000 children, called "intifadah babies" because they were born during the seven-year Palestinian uprising, will enter the overstretched UN school system.
The UN says it can't handle the load without more cash. Already the UNRWA budget has been slashed since last year from $312 million to $262 million by cutting back school maintenance and not hiring much-needed new teachers.
The recent closures, reimposed after yesterday's explosions, have kept 22,500 Gazans from their jobs in Israel. Each laborer is believed to sustain 10 refugees among the 1 million people living in Gaza, which means one-quarter of the population "went from subsistence to zero overnight" when Israel imposed the blockade after a double suicide bombing in Jerusalem on July 30, a UN official says.
For refugees, however, the new measures mean more than extra costs: They set a precedent of paying for services that undermines their "rights" as refugees. They dream, as they have since 1948, of returning to homes and land that they lost to Zionists during Israel's 1948 war of independence - a prospect that has dwindled.
"The provision of services by UNRWA is inextricably linked to 'the dream,' " says a Western observer. "The greater the desperation, the greater the attachment to the dream. But the agency has to lay down the line somewhere, and it would be irresponsible not to.
"The big issue is sustainability," he adds. "The UN provides the infrastructure, but there's a real risk that UNRWA will not be able to sustain it, and that the PA will not be able to take over. The gap is wide."
Such considerations are far from the minds of many Palestinian men as they gather outside the shop. Schoolchildren swarm the avenues between sessions, wearing blue-and-white uniforms, some with UN patches. They are excited about the new year, but many may not attend school next week if the strike goes ahead.
For the men, the talk is of injustice and conspiracy. The economic hardship now is worse than during the intifadah, they say.
As if to highlight the burden, shopkeeper Abdul Majid Mohammed shows a black ledger with the debt of each man here scrawled in Arabic. It totals 7,500 shekels ($215 dollars), a small fortune. "This is the World Bank," jokes one man, gratefully pointing at Mr. Mohammed.