Three Israeli settlers in the West Bank murdered, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza punished

The Guardian reports: Israeli jets and helicopters launched dozens of air strikes across the Gaza Strip overnight on Monday, just hours after the bodies of three abducted Israeli teenagers were found in a shallow grave near the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

The air strikes, ostensibly in response to an ongoing barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, came after the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, vowed the militant Islamist group Hamas, blamed by Israel for the kidnapping, would “pay a heavy price”.

The United Nations human rights office urged on Tuesday all Israelis and Palestinians to exercise “maximum restraint” as the tension across Israel and occupied Palestinian territory escalated.

Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16, who also had US citizenship, went missing while hitchhiking home from their religious schools in settlements on the West Bank on 12 June.

Their bodies were found by soldiers and volunteers in a valley covered with stones and brush on Monday afternoon.

The air strikes, which struck 34 locations in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip that Israel says were associated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, came as troops on the West Bank killed an 18 year-old Palestinian during a raid in Jenin. Israeli authorities claim the teenager was a Hamas member who threw an explosive device at Israeli soldiers.

In Hebron, meanwhile, it was reported that the Israeli military had blown up the houses of two Hamas members named by Israel as suspects in the abduction Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Eisheh – the first punitive house demolitions since Israel halted the practice in 2005. The two men disappeared from their homes shortly after the abduction and have not been arrested.

Sheera Frenkel reports: Israeli intelligence officials… remained divided over whether Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha…had direct ties to Hamas. The Qawasmeh family, one of the better-known families in Hebron, had recently distanced itself from Hamas.

“What we do know, is that this was likely an opportunistic move. The men behind this may have ties to a larger terror group, but this does not have the markings of a well-planned, complex operation,” one Israeli officer, based in the West Bank, told BuzzFeed earlier this month.

In Hebron, local residents who knew the families of the suspects expressed doubt that Hamas was responsible, especially after the Hamas’ senior leadership distanced itself from the kidnapping.

“That family, the Qawasmehs, often acted without the knowledge or signing-off of the senior Hamas leadership,” said Mahmoud Zabir, a Palestinian resident of Hebron who knows the family well. “They were considered troublemakers, even by Hamas.”

Shlomi Eldar adds: Each time Hamas had reached an understanding with Israel about a cease-fire or tahadiyeh (period of calm), at least one member of the family has been responsible for planning or initiating a suicide attack, and any understandings with Israel, achieved after considerable effort, were suddenly laid waste. If there is a single family throughout the PA territories whose actions can be blamed for Israel’s assassination of the political leadership of Hamas, it is the Qawasmeh family of Hebron.

As Alex Kane notes, while Isreal conducted its #BringBackOurBoys campaign, it already had strong evidence that the teens were already dead but through a media gag order, kept that information secret.

It was a bid to exploit the uncertainty about the youths and strike a blow against Hamas and the unity deal the Islamist movement struck with Fatah. In the process of the Israeli operation across the occupied West Bank, hundreds were arrested, at least five Palestinians were killed and the economy — especially Hebron’s — took a big hit.

Ma’an reports: Hamas is not interested in any confrontation with Israel, but if a confrontation is imposed, the movement is ready, says a spokesman of the Islamist movement.

Sami Abu Zuhri told Ma’an that “Hamas isn’t a superpower (ready) to fight a war against Israel, harming our people.”

Asked about the disappearance and killing of three Israeli teenagers, Abu Zuhri said there was only an Israeli version of the story which the occupation is trying to employ against Hamas and the Palestinian people.

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Gaza wants back in from the darkness as Hamas feels the isolation

The Guardian reports: In his haberdashery, Saleem Salouha tracks the ups and downs of his business against events beyond his control.

The good times for his shop in Gaza City were when Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power in Egypt. The bolts of cloth stacked behind Salouha came via the network of smuggling tunnels under the border at Rafah. Gazans had money too to buy his goods in the middle of a mini-economic boom.

All that, however, ended last July when Morsi was deposed in a military coup and the new regime deemed the Brotherhood as “terrorist” organisation.

Egypt accused Hamas, the Brotherhood’s sister group that rules Gaza, of contributing to the security crisis in northern Sinai and closed down the smuggling tunnels.

Now Salouha orders the same goods, but they are brought through an Israeli crossing, pushing up prices by 30%, even as half his customers have withered away.

“It is a double blockade,” Salouha says, referring to the long-term Israeli policy of limiting goods to Gaza since Hamas assumed control in 2007. He adds bitterly: “Israel and the Egyptians are competing with each other.”

The story of the Salouha shop, in business since 1962, offers a microcosm of what has happened to Gaza and Hamas since Morsi was ousted. [Continue reading...]

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Doubts surface on Gaza destination of rockets seized by Israel

n13-iconReuters reports: Some U.S. intelligence analysts and Middle East security officials believe that a rocket shipment seized by the Israeli navy in the Red Sea this month was destined for the Egyptian Sinai and not for the Gaza Strip, as Israel says.

A U.S. official and two non-Israeli regional sources said Israel appeared to be insisting on the Gaza destination in order to spare the military-backed interim Egyptian administration embarrassment as it struggles to impose order in the Sinai.

Israel has little compunction about drawing scrutiny to the rocket arsenals of Gaza’s governing Hamas Islamists and other armed Palestinian factions, with whom it has regularly clashed.

“Were the Israelis to say the rockets were going to Sinai, then they would also have had to say who in Sinai was going to receive the rockets,” one source told Reuters, adding that such a statement would draw attention to the insurgents resisting Egypt’s security sweeps in northern Sinai. [Continue reading...]

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Chase Madar: The folly of arming Israel

Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia’s pledge to sell advanced antiaircraft weapons to Syria, noting that it would have “a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region.”  And really, who could argue that pouring more weapons into a heavily-armed corner of the globe, roiled by conflict, convulsed by civil strife and civil war, could do anything but inflame tensions and cost lives?

Yet Kerry’s State Department, in coordination with the Pentagon, has been content to oversee a U.S.-sanctioned flood of arms and military matériel heading into the region at a breakneck pace.  In December, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which coordinates sales and transfers of military equipment, announced that it had approved the sale of more than 15,000 Raytheon-produced anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia under two separate agreements worth a combined $1 billion.  Last month, potential deals to sell and lease Apache attack helicopters to the embattled government of Iraq were also made public, in addition to an agreement that would send the country $82 million worth of Hellfire missiles.  At about the same time, the DSCA notified Congress of a possible $270 million sale of F-16 fighters to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  All of this was on top of a potential $600 million deal to train 6,000-8,000 Libyan military personnel and a prospective $150 million agreement for Marines to mentor members of the UAE’s Presidential Guard Command, both of which were announced in January.  And let’s not forget that, last month, Congress also turned on the spigot to allow automatic weapons and anti-tank rockets to flow to rebel fighters in — wait for it — Syria.

Of course, Muslim nations around the region aren’t alone in receiving U.S. support.  The U.S. also plies Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, with copious amounts of aid.  Since World War II, the Jewish state has, in fact, been the largest beneficiary of U.S. foreign assistance, almost all of it military, according to the Congressional Research Service.  Yet the topic is barely covered in the U.S.  Today, TomDispatch regular Chase Madar provides a remedy for that collective silence, taking us on a deep dive into what that aid means in Israel, Palestine, and Washington.  In the process, he explains why you’re unlikely ever to hear John Kerry suggest that sending weapons to Israel might have “a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region.” Nick Turse

Washington’s military aid to Israel
Fake peace process, real war process
By Chase Madar

We Americans have funny notions about foreign aid. Recent polls show that, on average, we believe 28% of the federal budget is eaten up by it, and that, in a time of austerity, this gigantic bite of the budget should be cut back to 10%. In actual fact, barely 1% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid of any kind.

In this case, however, truth is at least as strange as fiction. Consider that the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid over the past three decades isn’t some impoverished land filled with starving kids, but a wealthy nation with a per-head gross domestic product on par with the European Union average, and higher than that of Italy, Spain, or South Korea.

Consider also that this top recipient of such aid — nearly all of it military since 2008 — has been busily engaged in what looks like a nineteenth-century-style colonization project. In the late 1940s, our beneficiary expelled some 700,000 indigenous people from the land it was claiming.  In 1967, our client seized some contiguous pieces of real estate and ever since has been colonizing these territories with nearly 650,000 of its own people. It has divided the conquered lands with myriad checkpoints and roads accessible only to the colonizers and is building a 440-mile wall around (and cutting into) the conquered territory, creating a geography of control that violates international law.

“Ethnic cleansing” is a harsh term, but apt for a situation in which people are driven out of their homes and lands because they are not of the right tribe. Though many will balk at leveling this charge against Israel — for that country is, of course, the top recipient of American aid and especially military largesse — who would hesitate to use the term if, in a mirror-image world, all of this were being inflicted on Israeli Jews?

[Read more...]

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Leaving Gaza

FeatureAfter her final visit to Gaza before returning to London, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent, Harriet Sherwood, writes: Hazem Balousha was uncharacteristically despondent when he greeted me recently at the end of my long walk through the open-air caged passageway that separates the modern hi-tech state of Israel from the tiny, impoverished, overcrowded Gaza Strip.

Hazem has been a colleague and a friend for three and a half years, a relationship built over more than 20 visits I’ve made to Gaza. He arranges interviews and provides translation; but most importantly he helps me understand the people, the politics and the daily struggle of life in Gaza. We have talked for hours in his car, over coffee, at his home. He has accompanied me to grim refugee camps and upmarket restaurants; to the tunnels in the south and farms in the north; to schools and hospitals; to bomb sites and food markets; to the odd wedding party and rather more funerals. In the face of Gaza’s pressure-cooker atmosphere and bleak prospects, he – like so many I’ve met here – has always been remarkably good-humoured.

But not this time. As we waited for Hamas officials sporting black beards and bomber jackets to check my entry permit, I asked Hazem: “How’s it going?” He shrugged, and began to tell me about the many phone calls he’d had to make to find a replacement cooking gas canister recently, and how his small sons whine when the electricity cuts out for hours each day, depriving them of their favourite TV shows.

“This is what we have come to. We wake up in the night worrying about small things: cooking gas, the next power cut, how to find fuel for the car,” he said dejectedly. “We no longer care about the big things, the important things, the future – we just try to get through each day.”

The people of Gaza are reeling from a series of blows that have led some analysts to say that it is facing its worst crisis for more than six years, putting its 1.7 million inhabitants under intense material and psychological pressure. Israel’s continued blockade has been exacerbated by mounting hostility to Gaza’s Hamas government from the military regime in Cairo, which sees it as an extension of Egypt’s deposed Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptians have virtually cut off access to and from Gaza, and as a result Hamas is facing crippling financial problems and a new political isolation.

Power cuts, fuel shortages, price rises, job losses, Israeli air strikes, untreated sewage in the streets and the sea, internal political repression, the near-impossibility of leaving, the lack of hope or horizon – these have chipped away at the resilience and fortitude of Gazans, crushing their spirit. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s military rulers plot to provoke uprising in Gaza

Reuters reports: After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood at home, Egypt’s military rulers plan to undermine the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which runs the neighboring Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials told Reuters.

The aim, which the officials say could take years to pull off, includes working with Hamas’s political rivals Fatah and supporting popular anti-Hamas activities in Gaza, four security and diplomatic officials said.

Since it seized power in Egypt last summer, Egypt’s military has squeezed Gaza’s economy by destroying most of the 1,200 tunnels used to smuggle food, cars and weapons to the coastal enclave, which is under an Israeli blockade.

Now Cairo is becoming even more ambitious in its drive to eradicate what it says are militant organizations that threaten its national security.

Intelligence operatives, with help from Hamas’s political rivals and activists, plan to undermine the credibility of Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war against the Fatah movement led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

According to the Egyptian officials, Hamas will face growing resistance by activists who will launch protests similar to those in Egypt that have led to the downfall of two presidents since the Arab Spring in 2011. Cairo plans to support such protests in an effort to cripple Hamas.

“Gaza is next,” said one senior security official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders.” [Continue reading...]

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Human tragedy unfolds as Gaza runs on empty

The Telegraph reports: The horrific scars disfigure Mona Abu Mraleel’s otherwise strikingly beautiful face. Swathes of bandages cover the injuries the 17-year-old sustained to her arms and legs in a blaze from which she narrowly escaped with her life.

Still racked by pain from burns to 40 per cent of her body, she goes to hospital on a daily basis to have her dressings changed. Specialist doctors are preparing to carry out a delicate skin graft operation in the coming days.

Yet the hospital on which her recovery depends is woefully ill-fitted to the task – riddled by equipment failures, power cuts and shortages in a mounting crisis that doctors fear is leading to a “health catastrophe”.

Mona lives in Gaza, the impoverished Palestinian coastal enclave where chronic fuel shortages have led to electricity cuts of up to 18 hours a day and reduced ordinary life and public services to a standstill.

She is just one of many Gazans suffering in a rapidly worsening economic climate that this week prompted the British Foreign Office minister, Hugh Robertson, to demand urgent action to restore an adequate fuel supply to the territory. [Continue reading...]

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Sewage floods streets in Gaza’s power crisis

The New York Times reports: Raw sewage has flooded streets in a southern Gaza City neighborhood in recent days, threatening a health disaster, after a shortage of electricity and cheap diesel fuel from Egypt led the Hamas government to shut down Gaza’s lone power plant, causing a pump station to flood.

Three more sewage stations in Gaza City and 10 others elsewhere in the Gaza Strip are close to overflowing, sanitation officials here said, and 3.5 million cubic feet of raw sewage is seeping into the Mediterranean Sea daily. The sanitation department may soon no longer be able to pump drinking water to Gaza homes.

“Any day that passes without a solution has disastrous effects,” Farid Ashour, director of sanitation at the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, said Tuesday in an interview. “We haven’t faced a situation as dangerous as this time.”

The sewage crisis is the most acute of an array of problems since the Islamist Hamas movement that governs Gaza shut down the power plant on Nov. 1. Four months earlier Egypt’s new military-backed government closed the smuggling tunnels that were used to transport around one million liters (about 260,000 gallons) of diesel here each day.

Hamas has refused to import Israeli diesel because of taxes imposed by the Palestinian Authority.

Having gotten used to years of scheduled blackouts, generally eight hours without electricity two of every three days, Gaza’s 1.7 million residents are now facing daily power failures of 12 or even 18 hours. [Continue reading...]

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Gaza has rarely felt more isolated

The Economist: In the vanguard of the Islamist surge across the region a few years ago, Gaza’s Islamists now feel like the last men standing. Trapped between the Mediterranean sea and the walls of two hostile neighbours, Egypt and Israel, they wonder how long they, too, can survive. “It’s hopeless,” cries a senior man from Hamas, the Palestinians’ Islamist movement. “We tried democracy and we failed. We tried to reach out to the Israelis, accepting two states, and failed. We tried the armed struggle, and we paid the price.”

In olden times a crossroads between Africa and Asia, the tiny enclave of Gaza has rarely felt more isolated. Egypt’s generals, who took power last summer, have destroyed 90% of the tunnels through which Gaza got its fuel, shrouding the place in darkness. Mothers wake at midnight when the electricity briefly flickers on, to flush toilets and iron clothes. Lifts in high-rise buildings do not work. Sewage flows untreated. Farmers, unable to irrigate their fields, face ruin. “I should never have tried it,” says the owner of a hotel that opened last summer, overlooking Gaza’s picturesque port. Paying for his generators costs him more than he earns in a night.

Much of the mess is of Hamas’s own making. Carried away by the Arab awakening, its politburo abandoned its old patrons in Syria and Iran and rushed to embrace the Islamists who had taken power in Egypt. But the fall of its president, Muhammad Morsi, has left Hamas friendless. It has been kept out of the current negotiations, under America’s aegis, between Palestine and Israel. The only time the world seems to notice Gaza is when violence erupts. Gazans say they have dropped off the map. [Continue reading...]

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Israeli commanders praise Hamas for maintaining ceasefire

The Washington Post reports: Just a year ago, Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers fought a lopsided eight-day war in the skies that the United Nations said left more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis dead.

The period since last November’s cease-fire, though, has been the calmest between the two sides in more than a decade.

Israeli military commanders, although still wary of armed factions in Gaza, offer unexpected praise for Hamas, the Islamist militant and political organization that governs the enclave. Not only have Hamas and its armed military wing shown restraint, the Israeli commanders say, but they also have demonstrated that they can rein in the more radical factions, such as Islamic Jihad, that operate alongside them.

“Hamas was able to prove to us that it can control rocket fire from Gaza,” said Brig. Gen. Mickey Edelstein, commander of the Israeli military’s Gaza division. “This is an achievement.” [Continue reading...]

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Israeli strikes kill 4 militants in Gaza

The New York Times reports: Israeli military strikes killed four Palestinian militants from the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, late Thursday and early Friday after five Israeli soldiers were wounded in an explosion near the Israel-Gaza border.

It was the deadliest confrontation in the area since November 2012, when an Israeli offensive set off eight days of fierce cross-border fighting, which ended with a fragile, Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.

The episode began late Thursday when Israeli soldiers from an elite engineering unit were on a mission to destroy part of a mile-long tunnel running beneath the border from Gaza into Israel. The military discovered the tunnel last month and said it could have been used for an attack against Israeli soldiers or civilians.

The Israeli forces were apparently working on both sides of the border. The military said in a statement that during the operation, Hamas detonated an explosive device that wounded five soldiers and that soldiers fired back in response. Gaza security officials and witnesses said one militant had been killed and several injured when the Israeli forces fired a tank shell at a group of Hamas gunmen. [Continue reading...]

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Gaza chokes as Egypt’s economic garotte tightens

The Guardian reports: In Gaza City’s main market Mohammed Hilis stood disconsolately among piles of fruit and vegetables, waiting for customers. In the runup to Eid al-Adha, the second most important festival in the Muslim calendar, the market was unusually quiet. Steep price rises, unpaid salaries and layoffs – the consequences of the new Egyptian regime’s antipathy towards Hamas – have been painfully felt by the Gaza Strip.

“A kilo of tomatoes used to be one shekel [17p]; now it is five shekels. Most prices have gone up 50 – 60%,” said Hilis. “Why? Because of the costs of transportation, because there is no power to pump water to the fields, because there is no water. So people buy less.” As a result, his wages have slumped from 30 – 20 shekels a day, playing its small part in propelling the downward spiral of Gaza’s economy.

Six years after Israel imposed a stranglehold on Gaza as a punitive measure against the Hamas government, the strip of land along the Mediterranean is facing a new chokepoint from the south. After the Egyptian military forced President Mohamed Morsi out of office in July amid a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the army embarked on a drive to regain control of the anarchic Sinai peninsula, isolate the Brotherhood’s allies in neighbouring Gaza, and halt the traffic in goods, weapons and people through the tunnels under the border with the Palestinian territory.

According to the commander of Egypt’s border guards force, Major-General Ahmad Ibrahim, almost 800 tunnels have been destroyed by his troops this year. Hamas is coy about the number of tunnels put out of action. But Hatem Owida, Gaza’s deputy economic minister, said activity had been reduced by 80-90% since the military takeover in Egypt. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt draws up plans to bomb Gaza

Ma’an News Agency reports: The Egyptian army has established a precautionary plan for military intervention in the Gaza Strip if attacks on Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula intensify, Egyptian security officials said Wednesday.

Officials told Ma’an that Egyptian reconnaissance planes had entered the Gaza Strip’s airspace and examined a number of locations in Rafah and Khan Younis to be targeted if military attacks against Egyptian troops intensify in Sinai.

Egyptian aircraft could also target vehicles which travel across the border area delivering smuggled goods, sources added. More smuggling tunnels could also be destroyed, and sources highlighted that “all options are open.”

According to Egyptian military sources, the ongoing attacks in Sinai are carried out by organizations based both in Sinai Peninsula and in the Gaza Strip.

Certain militant groups in the Gaza Strip, according to Egyptian officials, are “behind the violence” in Sinai, including Ansar al-Sunna, which has ties to Hamas, as well as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, among others.

As a result, sources argue that in order to maintain control over the Sinai, the Egyptian army has no choice but to shut down all smuggling tunnels and strike targets in Gaza if further red lines are crossed.

“The Egyptian army does not believe the population of Gaza is involved in the violence in Sinai, but certain factions strongly support Sinai groups. The tunnels play a major role in the communication between both sides,” a senior Egyptian official told Ma’an.

“In addition, Hamas, although its involvement is limited, is responsible for maintaining control of the smuggling tunnels as well as the factions operating in the coastal enclave,” he added.

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Palestinians in Gaza feel the Egypt effect as smuggling tunnels close

The Guardian reports: The usually clogged streets of Gaza City are noticeably quieter. Hospitals are warning that their emergency reserves of fuel, used to power generators, are running dangerously low. Construction sites that until recently throbbed with the sound of heavy machinery are deserted.

Palestinians in Gaza are feeling the impact of regime change in next-door Egypt. Since the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted by the military on 3 July, not only have Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, lost their close political allies, but the Egyptian army has clamped down on the smuggling trade through the tunnels, which for six years have been a major lifeline for the 1.7m population of the tiny coastal strip.

The Egyptian authorities have targeted the underground passages as part of a drive to regain control of the vast Sinai desert, whose population is hostile to Cairo.

At the height of the black market trade between Gaza and Egypt, there were thought to be more than 1,000 tunnels employing around 7,000 people – providing Hamas with an income from taxes and permits of millions of dollars a month, estimated at 40% of the government’s revenue. But Egypt is thought to have closed or destroyed around 80% of the tunnels.

“The Gaza Strip has lost around $225m during the past month due to the halt of imports, namely fuel and crude materials for construction, such as cement, gravel and steel,” said the Hamas economy minister, Alaa al-Rafati. [Continue reading...]

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Gaza’s only music school at risk of closure

Al Monitor reports: During rehearsals in a music school in Gaza, Firas al-Sharafi, age 10, and his friend Abdel Aziz Abu Sharkh, age 11, were playing a song by Lebanese singer Fairuz. The two boys were playing the dulcimer, reading musical notes and occasionally glancing at each other with a smile on their faces.

They dream of joining a big musical group that plays both Eastern and Western musical instruments. Their dream moved closer to reality when they enrolled in the only music school in Gaza five years ago. They go to the school three times a week, and they have mastered the art of reading music and playing both the dulcimer and percussion instruments.

Firas and Abdel Aziz know that their school faces a major challenge this year: financial problems have left the school on the brink of closure. The school had been free to attend, but students now have to pay roughly $600 a year.

“Closing the school would truly sadden us,” Abdel Aziz told Al-Monitor. “What will we do if it closes? Where will we go to learn music? We will continue to send endless emails to people to help our school. I will also make a film about the school to give people an incentive to donate.”

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Video: Gaza struggles to cope with psychological trauma

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