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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GAZA CITY—This summer in Gaza, a new war is raging: the battle of the children's day camps. Forty-five percent of the 1.5 million people in Gaza are under the age of 16, and few organizations can resist the opportunity to mold 675,000 young minds.

Each faction proudly displays its colors. Hamas, the Islamist group that seized control of the territory in 2007, hands out green caps to kids that attend its sessions; the U.N. Relief and Works Agency dispenses blue-and-white hats; and girls at the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs camps sport white headscarves.

The UNRWA Summer Games camps are by far the best-funded and most heavily attended, catering to more than 250,000 children. But UNRWA has paid a price for its success. Twice in the last month and a half, masked men have attacked the international-aid agency's beach campsites. Mobs burned camps, slashed trampolines and water slides, and left threatening notes with tied-up security guards.

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"This is one of the most successful seasons for UNRWA Summer Games; maybe that's what angered others and led them to attack," says Adnan Abu Hasna, Gaza's UNRWA spokesman. Crime is rare in Gaza, where an armed Hamas policeman patrols almost every corner.

The rhetoric used against the United Nations by rival camp organizers is subtle. "The U.N. camps are concentrating only on entertainment. Children go to the beach and play and sing and dance. Ministry camps concentrate on entertainment and memorizing the Quran, which is part of our culture," says Kefh El Ramly, director of the girl's programming at the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, which is a branch of the Hamas-controlled government.

The ministry runs mosque-based camps for 10,000 children for five hours a day, six days a week. "We teach children to read the Quran, because it is our holy book. We learn a lot from it—manners, how to be good, how to deal with people, how to deal with God, how to deal with our neighbors. It is full of principles and good manners," says El Ramly, who makes no secret of the ministry's desire to Islamize young minds.

Hamas is also blunt about its programming—teaching children to sympathize with the group's ideology. "Major movement leaders come and meet the children. Children here feel they're closer to the movement [afterward], because they feel that someone cares about them," Kamal El Gazi, eastern Gaza Hamas camp organizer, told me.

El Gazi estimates that 50,000 children attend Hamas camps. "We try to grow the seeds of nationalism and Islam in the heart of these children. There are so many activities here related to our culture, not brought in from outside," he says.

The verbal attacks on UNRWA began a few months ago. Although UNRWA normally works solely with refugees, last year they opened up camp attendance to others. As a result, "Hamas thought … that would leave them with no one," says Mkhaimar Abusada, assistant professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. "So this year Hamas started a war of incitement against UNRWA."

As Abusada describes it, leaflets were distributed in mosques across the strip in May and June, claiming UNRWA camps were not serving the "interests" of the Palestinians. Posters touting Hamas' "purposeful" summer camps encouraged parents to enroll their children in Hamas and Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs camps.

In some cases, it worked. At one Hamas campsite in Gaza City, boys in green baseball caps and Hamas T-shirts spend their days playing sports and taking classes in subjects like drawing, religion, and culture from Hamas volunteers.

"They can call it summer camps, but in reality this is just part of Islamic socialization. This is just recruiting and political socialization to join Hamas," says Abusada. "They are recruiting these kids to join the al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas' military wing]. Whenever there is a fight with Israel or there is a new round of violence with Israel, most of the boys will be recruited to fight as suicide bombers or at least to join the Palestinian resistance."

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.

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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