The world has known for years that schools in Gaza are rife with hateful indoctrination and violent incitement. But the problem is even worse during the summer, where organized camps train future terrorists.
This summer, Mohammad Nofal’s 10-year-old son will be participating in all of the typical Gaza summer camp activities: scouting, beach games, media lessons, military training sessions, and introductory programs on this year’s theme, “Jerusalem Intifada.” Other campers will spend their summer like 12-year-old Musaab, learning to crawl beneath barbed wire and wield assault rifles in simulated attacks on Israeli military outposts. While parent Alaa’ Abou Chanab argued that he sent his child to a Hamas summer camp because “children have the right to play during summer break,” the camps in Gaza are an underestimated vehicle for perpetuating terror and hateful ideology.
“I was surprised that my 14-year-old son was trained on how to carry weapons during the summer camp organized by Hamas,” Abou Chanab told Al-Monitor. What is more surprising, however, is his surprise. The violent, militaristic camps sponsored by the terror groups of Gaza are an annual event, and the organizations behind them make no efforts to hide their agendas. “These camps are designed to prepare a generation that carries the Quran and rifle,” senior Hamas official Khalil al-Haya explained in a press release. “The camps show that Palestinians support the resistance and the project of liberation of Palestine. The goal is to liberate Palestine and the Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem].” Every year, the terror groups of Gaza bolster their numbers by reaching out to youth, and every year, children are trained to fire machine guns, storm military positions, perform kidnappings, plant mines, and conduct first aid.
More than 50 percent of the population in Gaza is under the age of 18, and what these children are learning will play a decisive role in the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For anyone attending these camps, that role is unlikely to be positive. The terror groups of the strip use summertime camps for one purpose: to cultivate the next generation of Palestinian terrorists.
Each summer, the various organizations in Gaza vie to attract the most applicants for their summer programs. The three most successful groups are Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Nofal explained in an interview with Al-Monitor that he chose Hamas’s program because “I want my son to grow up knowing the reality of the Israeli occupation of our land. He needs to learn military combat to grow up and take part in liberating our land.” More than 100,000 children participated in Hamas’s summer camps in 2014, a number that has remained consistent for years; this July alone, 50,000 campers gathered for the “Jerusalem Intifada” camp. Camps are open to male and female children starting from as young as age 10. There are a variety of summer programs; some are predominantly cultural and recreational, some have a military focus, but all focus on promoting Hamas and its violent ideology. “Of course we have a political agenda,” Ahmed Nabil, a Hamas official administering one of the camps, told The Guardian. “We believe the older generation has a duty to tell the younger generation about these issues. We are letting them play but also giving them a message. We must not let them forget that we are an occupied people.”
All the camps aim to instill Hamas’s slogan and guiding premise: “Allah is the goal (of Hamas); Muhammad is its sign; the Qur’an is its law; jihad is its path; and death on behalf of Allah is (Hamas’s) highest aspiration.” Some of this year’s camps especially reinforce the cult of jihadist martyrdom. Jihadist soldiers run the camp and teach the children to idolize the subjects of the posters plastered across camp walls: suicide bombers who—as a camp official explained in a propaganda video posted on a pro-Hamas YouTube channel—“sacrificed their souls as martyrs in jihad for the sake of Allah, leaders who will be their role models, on the path to liberation and martyrdom. This prompts these youth to proceed on this path, without fear, with force and steadfastness.”
In the military training camps, children from age 12 to 17 are instructed in the basics of military action, how to carry and fire weapons, techniques to navigate obstacle courses, and other combat skills. “We are participating in the camp so that we will know how to fight the Zionist enemy and regain our ancestral home of Palestine,” a young teenager explained to Israel’s Channel 2. And in 2015, Hamas began sponsoring a military camp for women. According to camp director Rajaa al-Halabi, the all-female First Al-Quds Army camp gives military training and “focuses on the psychological education of girls, who participate voluntarily. Training includes how to raise a new generation that embraces the culture of liberation and fighting the occupation.” “I joined the First Al-Quds Army camp because I hope women can play a role in the future liberation battle,” 13-year-old Hiba Abu al-Laban told Al-Monitor. “We were also exposed to the Israeli lies about Al-Aqsa Mosque, such as the existence of Jewish artifacts under the mosque, which would give [Israel] the pretext to violate the mosque’s foundation and structure and destroy it.”
Befitting an Islamist organization, Hamas uses religion prominently in its recruitment efforts. “I was waiting for the camp’s events to start after I was registered through the mosque in my region of residence,” 17-year-old Saleh Jaafarawi told a reporter. Registration and recruitment to the Hamas camps is often conducted through mosques, linking religion with Hamas and its military camps. Mosques controlled by Hamas often serve as epicenters for the group’s activities—including the recruitment and indoctrination of the young. A 2015 report by the Middle East Media Research Institute found that “many Palestinians in Gaza criticized the transformation of mosques into registration points for Hamas camps, accusing the movement of exploiting places of worship to attract and recruit youths and of benefiting from the increased presence [of children] at Ramadan prayers. Since its establishment, Hamas has used mosques as a contact point with residents; it also imprisoned and tortured residents inside mosques during its coup in Gaza.”
While the camps aren’t expressly created to recruit, Abu Mujahed, a commander in Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, publicly admitted that at least some candidates for the militia are always chosen from camp ranks. “We have more than enough recruits. Too many,” he explained to The Washington Post.
Hamas has even extended some of its children’s camps into the fall, making the creation of childhood soldiers a year-round enterprise. “The camps are designed to answer the demands of the youth—to do something,” he said. And the only way the boys are taught to viably “do something” is with violence. “Every day we have someone from Hamas giving us a lesson on jihad and the importance of it,” one 15-year-old boy told the Post. “We have videos on the military operations that were done by Hamas in the last war.” After concluding the camp, 16-year-old Ahmad Ismail revealed his own plans to “do something”: “I wish I could join Qassam Brigades now. I want to fight Israel. I want to kick them out of our land. I am ready now.”
Hamas is by no means the only terror group using summer camps to further its terrorist activities. Ahmed al-Mudallal, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leader in charge of the group’s summer activities programs, prepared for a minimum of 10,000 participants this summer. Like Hamas, PIJ offers two kinds of camps: one is a purely military camp, while the other features a mix of activities. Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shibab told Ma’an News Agency that across all camps, “We do not hide the fact that we are working on raising a strong resisting generation that is ready to defend themselves, their families and their brothers when the need arises.”
The military camps feature extensive training, with drills to practice kidnapping Israeli soldiers and using machine guns and other weapons. While Hamas is generally more cautious about giving extensive military training to campers under 16, children can be enrolled in the PIJ’s more intensive military camps from the age of 12, and children even younger than that have participated. Other camps sponsored by PIJ offer cultural activities, entertainment, security lessons, marksmanship, and “advice on the dangers of social networking sites and drug use.” Like the summer camps sponsored by Hamas, the PIJ inculcates young Palestinians with ideas of jihad, hatred, and militancy.
There are Gazans who forbid their children from attending the camps or criticize them, but change hasn’t come. Palestinian activist Eyad al-Atal has denounced these summer camps for “depriving an entire generation of Palestinians of their childhood.” He argued that the military training of children increases levels of violence, creates new supporters for the Islamic State, and is a violation of human rights principles. “Teach your children how to play, how to smile, how to rejoice,” he told a journalist from the United Arab Emirates. “Build for them an institution for education and entertainment that would raise them on the love of Palestine and not how to get themselves killed.” Gazan child psychologist Fadil Abu Hein argues that children are too young and unprepared psychologically for the camps. “During childhood, children need to play, have fun, feel happy and all such things which help develop the human character after a school year full of pressures,” he said to Ma’an. The camps reflect poorly on Gaza, some locals point out; as human rights activist Mustafa Ibrahim warned Al-Monitor, “We are allowing Israel to exploit these camps and mobilize international public opinion against the Palestinian people, not to mention the increased levels of violence that these camps cause among children under the age of 8 and the negative repercussions engendered by that on society as a whole.”
Terrorist groups are not the only organizations in Gaza contributing to the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Summer camps organized by UNRWA offer a popular alternative to those of Hamas and PIJ. According to the UN, “240,000 children participated in the UNRWA Summer Games 2009 in Gaza. The figure is 40,000 higher than the number of pupils UNRWA cares for in Agency schools, showing the great support of the community for such Agency activities in the Gaza Strip.” Hundreds of thousands of young Palestinians turn out to participate in such activities as swimming, painting, pottery, theatre, dance, sports, lessons on life skills, and museum excursions. Though UNRWA does not provide military training, the organization implicitly contributes to incitement, and its summer camps are no exception.
“UNRWA has taken very few steps to detect and eliminate terrorists from the ranks of its staff or its beneficiaries, and no steps at all to prevent members of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, from joining its staff,” James Lindsay, who worked as a legal advisor and general counsel to UNRWA from 2000-2007, wrote in a 2009 monograph for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Hamas candidates have been elected to the union board for UNRWA workers, while in the past year the UN actually had to suspend employees for inciting violence against Israelis and Jews on social media. Former UNRWA chief Peter Hansen admitted in a press conference that “there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll and I don’t see that as a crime.” The documentary The UNRWA Road to Terror: Palestinian Classroom Incitement, which was released in May, showed that in schools run by the organization, kids as young as 13 declare that they want to murder Jews and join ISIS. “Right now I am prepared to be a suicide bomber,” one 13-year-old said. As Palestinian human rights activist and political analyst Bassam Eid explained in an interview with Fox News, “Advocacy of violence remains rampant, dictated by teachers who run the U.S.-funded UNRWA schools.” That culture of incitement also carries over to the summer camps, which serve an even larger number of children than the schools.
At UNRWA summer camps, incitement is as normal as swimming and sports. The Times of Israel found that the staff teaches young Palestinians that “Jews are the wolf” and “with God’s help and our own strength we will wage war. And with education and jihad we will return to our homes!” A young camper told the creators of the documentary Camp Jihad that “the summer camp teaches us that we have to liberate Palestine.” A little girl eagerly asserted to filmmakers that she will “not forget my promise to take back my land.” Contributing to the culture of incitement and violence, the UNRWA and its camps have, since their inception, furthered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No one is born a terrorist; they are taught to become one. Worse than most people can imagine, the summer camps of Gaza turn children into soldiers and violence into a way of life. Play and personal growth activities are replaced with military training, and while children elsewhere in the world are learning new skills and knowledge, the children of Gaza are learning to dedicate their lives to a violent ideology and, for some, perpetuating an armed struggle.
Searching to explain the “intifada of the knives” in 2015 and 2016, The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggested that “the taste for violence emerges from a deep-seated culture of hate, nurtured by Palestinian leaders over many years in mosques, schools, newspapers, TV channels, and social media.” Summer camps reinforce this culture; even children’s play has become an opportunity to further the Palestinian terror groups’ causes. Campers are given terrorists to serve as role models, military training as a substitute for games, and a pre-packaged, violent ideology that destroys their innocence. While it is only one component of the culture of terror in Gaza, the summer camps give children both the ideology and the technical expertise to act on it. And that’s no way to spend a summer.
Banner Photo: Aaed Tayeh / Flash90