For 11-year-old Ahmad Elewadi, it is a refuge from the squalor and violence of Palestinian life.
The Al-Salah Benevolent School sits on an attractive campus with palms, hibiscus and _ a rare sight in this hot, sandy land _ lush green grass. There are soccer fields, computers, a library and science labs. In what may be the most modern and best-equipped school in Gaza, Ahmad and other children from poor Palestinian families read about the Great Wall of China, study anatomy, learn to speak English.
"Good morning, teacher," they shout in unison. "We are fine. How are you?"
And then to two American visitors, "Welcome, welcome, welcome!"
The school is run by the Al-Salah Islamic Society, which also operates four medical clinics in Gaza. But come Oct. 1, the clinics may cut services and 720 students may be out on the streets.
The reason? The Palestinian Authority has frozen the bank accounts of Al-Salah and eight other Islamic charities while it investigates whether they help support Hamas, the militant group that has killed scores of Israelis.
"There have been charities that Israel has long suspected of being front organizations for Hamas _ anything that serves this need of stopping the flow of money is a positive development," Dore Gold, an Israeli government spokesman, said in praising the Aug. 24 freeze on the accounts.
But critics say the move was illegal because the Palestinian Authority acted without a court order or showing any evidence that money was used improperly.
Al-Salah, among the largest of the nine charities, "provides vital and needed services," says Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "This is totally counterproductive."
The charities learned of the action only from news accounts and after hundreds of Palestinians went to the bank to collect their monthly stipends, only to be told the accounts were frozen. Al-Salah has appealed for help from the human rights center, a non-profit organization funded in part by European governments and the Ford Foundation.
"Salah came to us because they have so many people heavily dependent on them and it's devastating for them," said Vicki Metcalfe, a British lawyer at the center. "We have sent two letters to the Palestinian general prosecutor requesting an explanation, but we have yet to be given a copy of the order."
Hamas and Al-Salah both deny any links between the two. Al-Salah's director, Ahmed Al-Kurd, says the Palestinian Authority acted only because of heavy pressure from Israel and the United States.
He notes that the charity was founded 25 years ago while Israel controlled the Gaza Strip, and says it never had any problems with Israeli authorities. Now, he insists, Al-Salah is an innocent victim of America's war on terror and Israel's campaign against the Palestinians.
"You see where the money goes _ a school, medical centers," he says, gesturing excitedly. "These buildings, what do they do for Hamas _ there is no relation to Hamas."
In the absence of bank statements or other hard evidence, it is impossible to know whether Al-Salah has funnelled money to terrorist groups. But clearly the organization has spent considerable sums helping Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is 60 percent and many of the 1.2-million people live in poverty.
Al-Salah estimates that 15,000 Gazans a month visit its clinics, including the new Yaffa Medical Center here in the date-growing town of Deir el Balah. Amid trash-strewn streets and squat concrete buildings, the six-story center stands out with its immaculate grounds and striking architecture.
Nor is it all for show. There is an emergency room, dental clinic, eye clinic and ob/gyn facility, all with state-of-the-art-equipment. Patients can pick up medications from an in-house pharmacy.
In the physical therapy room, Enzehar Albaz watches her 18-month-old son, Ahmed, dangle from a contraption that forces him to stand upright. He was born with a condition that severely weakened the muscles in his right arm and leg, but after three months of exercise, he can now move both.
"He is doing good," his mother says, "and, God willing, he will get better."
The center's top three floors are still unfinished, but Al-Salah hopes to convert Yaffa into a full-fledged hospital. Another of the charity's clinics, in a Gaza refugee camp, is also being enlarged _ with the help, ironically, of a $55,000 grant from the same U.S. government that was instrumental in freezing the charity's bank accounts.
"We found it to be a very necessary project, and we stand behind it," said Tom Neu of American Near East Refugee Aid, a Washington-based organization that proposed funding for the clinic expansion.
"Our cooperation with Al-Salah has been very good _ they provide good medical services."
Israel often accuses Islamic charities of aiding the families of terrorists. But Al-Kurd, Al-Salah's director, points out that most suicide bombers are single men with no wives or children. Moreover, there have been no bombers from Gaza in at least three years.
"They say we help terrorists _ how many of the 4,000 people we help are terrorists _ maybe one or two?" asks Al-Kurd. "The rest are women, the old people, orphans _ are they terrorists?"
At the Al-Salah school, the vast majority of the 720 students are "orphans," as Palestinians often refer to children without fathers.
Many, like 12-year-old Alaa Zarnouk, lost their parents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her father, she says, was an innocent bystander shot in a crossfire as he stood in their doorway when she was only 3.
Other fathers died of natural causes, leaving behind widows too poor to afford schooling for their kids.
Six days a week, buses pick up pupils from Rafah, 18 miles to the south, and Gaza City, 12 miles to the north, and ferry them to Deir el Balah. The school provides free uniforms _ crisp white shirts and dark green vests for the boys and younger girls; long gray cloaks and white headscarves for the older girls.
The school also gives them backpacks, supplies and textbooks. The latter, the same as those used in all Palestinian schools, are illustrated with color photographs and whimsical drawings.
In addition to math, science and other subjects, students study the Koran, the Muslim holy book, in the same way as those in a Catholic school in America might study the Bible. The primers for learning English, however, have the word "church" as well as "mosque."
What the textbooks don't show, or mention, is the nation of Israel. The land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea is labeled "Palestine" _ Palestinians maintain it would be wrong to show Israel because the boundaries of the Jewish state have yet to be determined in "final status" talks between the two sides.
Also jarring _ at least to non-Palestinians _ is a large color painting of a boy aiming a slingshot at what appears to be an Israeli tank. But the school denies it is an example of inciting children to violence against Israel, as Israelis often accuse Palestinians of doing.
"It is not the picture that will encourage them _ it is when they come from Rafah and spent a whole day on the bus because the Israelis will not let them through," Fayza Abu Shawareb, a director of the school, says angrily. "This is what will encourage them."
Indeed, road closures in Gaza have been frequent enough in the past few years that the school has bedding and space for dozens of students to spend the night.
Al-Kurd, head of Al-Salah, says operations at both the school and medical center will soon come to a halt unless the bank accounts are unfrozen. A greater, long-term danger, he says, is that organizations throughout the world that regularly contribute to Al-Salah will be scared off because of American and Israeli pressure.
"If these stop helping us, how will the families get help?" he asks. "How will the schools work? How will the clinics work?"
There have been suggestions that all donations to Al-Salah and the eight other charities be funnelled through Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which governs Gaza and the West Bank. But critics say that could be tantamount to throwing the money away, given the authority's reputation for waste, corruption and inefficiency.
"It's an absurd idea," says Sourani of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "I'm telling you honestly _ the P.A. is paralyzed, the P.A. is on the verge of collapse."
_ Susan Martin can be contacted at susansptimes.com.