School year for almost 6,000 children in Ain al-Hilweh camp will be delayed, says UN

Nada Homsi

The National  /  August 23, 2023 

UNRWA plans to educate pupils nearby after fighting leaves buildings severely damaged and occupied by armed fighters.

The academic year for nearly 6,000 children in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, will be delayed because its schools were severely damaged during a deadly battle this month, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees told The National on Wednesday.

The warning by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was further emphasised by reports of an explosion near an UNRWA school on Wednesday morning, Lebanon’s state news agency reported.

All eight UNRWA-run schools in Ain al-Hilweh remain occupied by armed groups weeks after a tentative ceasefire was reached, forcing the agency to come up with alternative plans for the children’s education.

Assuming an agreement is reached for the militant groups to vacate the schools, it remains unlikely that they will be available for the 5,900 children at the start of the academic year due to significant damage, said Dorothee Klaus, director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon.

“UNRWA is making provisions to host over 3,000 children in UNRWA schools in adjacent areas to the camp in double shifts,” Klaus said.

“For the remaining schoolchildren, UNRWA may need to find additional temporary school accommodation in public or private buildings. This will be costly to UNRWA and inconvenient to the schoolchildren of Ain al-Hilweh and their families.”

The agency suspended its services in the camp for the day last Friday in protest at armed groups taking over facilities.

It has since returned to semi-normal activity – running one of two health clinics, resuming rubbish collections, and supplying fuel for water pumping stations. It is also operating a temporary health clinic from an UNRWA school near the camp.

The UN agency has repeatedly called for armed groups to withdraw from its facilities.

Klaus said armed groups had told UNRWA they would evacuate them “as soon as circumstances permit”.

Although a ceasefire has tentatively held, armed insurgents had previously refused to leave the occupied properties.

Thirteen people were killed this month and dozens injured during a week-long battle between Fatah, the most powerful governing body in the camp, and rival militants.

The battle, which began last month but dragged into August, broke out following the death of high-profile Fatah commander Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi and four of his bodyguards.

While clashes between rival factions are not uncommon, this month’s battles were especially ferocious due to the high-profile nature of the assassination.

Ain al-Hilweh has earned a reputation for being a haven for outlaws and small networks of militants, owing to a decades-long agreement that prevents the Lebanese state from entering the camps – although Fatah has for years attempted to contain their presence.

Nada Homsi is a correspondent at The National’s Beirut bureau