One million pupils returned to schools across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as Israel was putting the finishing touches on its Gaza Strip withdrawal, ending its 38-year occupation of the impoverished Mediterranean coastal area.

Children wearing their blue school uniforms crowded dusty playgrounds from Gaza City to the southern border town of Rafah, some laughing, others crying and dreading their first day back after a hot summer.

'No more obstacles'

For these youths, it is hard to think of a year when tragedy did not penetrate the classroom, or when students did not know a friend, relative or even a teacher claimed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Under the occupation, schools could unexpectedly close down because of an Israeli army offensive.

On a few occasions, Israeli fire strafed schools, killing pupils.

Palestinian schools were often
disrupted by the Israeli military

Mindful of the recent past, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted students on Saturday morning at Gaza City's Palestine secondary school, promising them a brighter future.

"The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will be good for all students. There will be no more obstacles, no more checkpoints," Abbas told students and teachers outside the building.

"Students will be able to travel freely. The shelling is finished. The elderly will be able to live in peace.

"You paid a heavy price. We appreciate your sacrifice."

Scars

In the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, walled in by the abandoned Jewish settlement of Gush Katif, students were desperate to believe their town would no longer be a frontline.

Thirteen-year-old Abdul Raham al-Astal said he missed 20 to 30 school days last year because of the turmoil of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Children in Jerusalem had to pass
through the separation barrier

"Sometimes, the Israelis started shelling and I was too frightened to sleep," Astal says.

The fighting has left its mark. The child, who liked to sing about holy war at the start of school days, says he wants to be an artist and prefers drawing pictures of Israeli forces killing Palestinians.

Naher Spier, 14, who lived close to Morag settlement outside Khan Yunis, often found the road to school blocked by Israeli forces.

"I'm very happy. Before, every day there was shooting. It was hard to get home after school, and I would be afraid when I was doing my homework."

Occupation continues

Meanwhile, in the east Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, children began their first school year having to pass the cement defense barrier snaking its way through the Arab section of the biblical city to reach their classes.

"I am happy to be back to school, but as soon as I saw the Israeli soldiers by the wall I felt sick. This wall must disappear," said 13-year-old Assen.

The barrier built to separate the West Bank and sections of east Jerusalem from Israel was ruled illegal in a non-binding decision by the International Court of Justice last summer.