Rival Hamas, UN summer camps compete over children

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The problem is particularly acute in Gaza, which offers few diversions. Families tend to be large, many homes are crowded and kids are often sent into the streets by stressed parents. Frequent power cuts make idle days more miserable.

Mahmoud Migdad, a 15-year-old from the Shati refugee camp, says he often gets yelled at by neighbors for playing football in the streets and gets kicked out of the house by his older sisters when they want to clean. He says that’s why he’s not only joined a Hamas camp, but is also trying to sign up for the U.N. program.

On a recent afternoon, at one of the Hamas youth camps near Shati, dozens of elementary school students took turns riding horses, swimming in the Mediterranean, sailing in a fishing boat and learning the choreography of Muslim prayer.

After the children recited Quranic verses, a camp supervisor gave a brief lecture.

“We have two aims in our camps, our prisoners and al-Aqsa,” said the man, referring to Islam’s third holiest shrine, in Israeli-ruled east Jerusalem, and the more than 6,300 Palestinians held by Israel. “First we must free the prisoners, and then also al-Aqsa.”

“Where is al-Aqsa?” he asked. “In the hands of the occupation,” the children responded.

“Who is the occupation?” he asked. “Israel,” they responded.

“Where are the prisoners?” he asked. “In the hands of the occupation,” they said.

Each camp is dedicated to a Hamas prisoner, and a large banner with the photo and name of this camp’s patron, Mahmoud Nimr Shaheen, was draped over the entrance. Shaheen, an aide to a Hamas militant leader, was released this month after serving 18 years.

Asked what he knows about the camp’s patron, 12-year-old Tareq al-Ghoul said, “He was in prison because he fought for us.”

After the lecture, the boys lined up outside the tent and practiced marching in formation, to the singsong of a drill sergeant, shaking their fists to shouts of “Allah.”

Ahmed Yousef, a representative of Hamas‘ more pragmatic wing, denied the children were being indoctrinated. He said the emphasis on religion meets the demands of a conservative society.

However, Hamad al-Raqoub, a Hamas official involved in the camps, said their aim is also to forge a generation “that will lead the liberation of Palestine from the Israeli occupation regime.”

At a U.N. camp, the atmosphere was more laid back.

Three boys rehearsed a skit with an anti-smoking message. Others splashed in a water tank. Crafts projects were on display. “We need to be hopeful to bring about real change,” read one of the cheerful signs posted on tent walls.

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