Hamas, ministry of religious affairs, or United Nations? Summer camp wars in the Gaza Strip.

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 27 2010 1:57 PM

Gaza's Summer Camp War

Kids in the Gaza Strip can spend their summers swimming, studying the Quran, or learning about Palestinian prisoners.

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Sixteen-year-old Ahmed Abul Kass gave his Hamas camp a glowing review: "They take us on many trips, and I have a good time playing with the other kids here. Also, I learn about the Al-Aqsa mosque and prisoners in Israel," he says in one breath, flushed from participating in a sack race. When asked to describe what he learned about Al-Aqsa (known by Jews as the Temple Mount), Ahmed considers his answer. "I learned that Israelis are digging under it, and it might fall down, and no one cares about it," he says.

In the Hamas camp's art class, boys are asked to draw whatever comes to mind. Most often, volunteer art teacher Ibrahim Sukar says, the kids draw the Al-Aqsa mosque, violent scenes from Israel's 22-day 2009 offensive, or the Turkish flotilla that tried to break Israel's three-year blockade on Gaza in May. Sure enough, of the 15 boys in the room, 12 have put a Palestinian flag somewhere in their picture. Many have drawn the al-Aqsa mosque, and a few have sketched scenes of violence. Only one boy has produced a pastoral scene of a house in a field.

The children who attend the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs camps spend most of their time on the Quran. Once a week, children are taken on field trips, but otherwise they are occupied with religious matters.

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All the groups—UNRWA, Hamas, and the ministry—segregate their campers. At every campsite, girls and boys attend different sessions with same-gender counselors.

In a ministry-run camp on the second floor of a mosque, about 90 girls sit in small groups of 10 to 15, taking turns reading from the Quran. It's quiet in the room—the ceiling fans whirl, pages shuffle, and soft voices recite the holy words.

The young women here are self-assured and disciplined, with no teenage awkwardness or giggling. Girls shout out their responses to questions. "I come here so I can be close to God. This is the way I show him I love him, by coming here," explains 15-year-old Alah Nasser. "The U.N. summer camps are empty," says Alah. "OK, they go for entertainment, but no good comes from it in the next life. Here, we learn the Quran and we hope to end up in paradise." She gestures forcefully as she speaks.

The administrators of the U.N. camps agree with Alah's assessment. Maher El-Sayes, a camp manager, explains: "The UNRWA wants kids to play and have fun, there's no other motive. Other factions try to make kids support them in the future. UNRWA was apolitical from the beginning and has nothing to do with the interior conflicts. That's why many people send their children here."

UNRWA camper Mahmoud Salim, 14, is busy at work at a craft table. He is building a kite. "I'm so happy here, everything is so great," he says, anxious to return to his task. He doesn't quite get the problem other camps have with his summer of fun.

"They're different than us." Mahmoud says. He pauses to consider the differences when prompted. "We swim in a pool, but they swim in another place," he decides, distractedly eying his kite.

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.

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