Hamas summer camp: 'Kill Zionists'
San Francisco Chronicle
July 31, 2005
Seventeen-year-old Osama Abu Asi knows what Hamas stands for: swimming lessons, horseback riding, potato sack races and other summertime fun -- including religious education and paramilitary training.
This is summer camp in the Gaza Strip, as organized by Harakat al-Moqawama al-Islamiyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas -- which is officially regarded by the United States and many other countries as a terrorist organization that has killed hundreds of Israelis.
All summer long, at camps in playgrounds, in dirt-poor neighborhoods and on glittering Mediterranean beaches, Palestinian boys and young men get together in safe, well-managed, comfortable facilities decorated with the fluttering green flags of Hamas.
"In this camp we learn the important things of life -- good behavior, respect," said Osama, who was spending the summer at a Hamas-run camp on the beach outside Gaza City.
They also learn how to sing "intifada songs," including one urging them to "kill Zionists wherever they are, in the name of God."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin described the summer camps as "indoctrination camps" comparable to the Hitler Youth camps, and accused Hamas of taking advantage of Gaza parents' desperate economic straits by offering to care for and feed their children while concealing the organization's true motives.
"This is where you create cultural hatred, so by the age of 15 or 16 you can send them out as suicide bombers. That's the whole purpose of them," he said.
Osama didn't see it that way. "They are not terrorists. We've been trained and taught to live and forgive. That is the lesson here."
As he spoke, fellow campers ran laughing through the shimmering breakers, rolling in the white sand. Nearby, a group of camp "graduates" -- young men now regulars in Hamas -- played volleyball in an enclosed area. Up the beach, families relaxed under tents, while women walked into the sea wearing long dresses and with their hair covered by a hijab, maintaining their modesty in the surf.
Other campers gave similar responses when asked what they were learning from the bearded instructors who stood nearby as they spoke and sometimes whispered suggested answers.
"Math, sports, swimming, Islamic behavior," said Ibrahim El-Kanua, 12, at a camp in a playground near the Jabaliya refugee camp where he lives. "I learned how to respect and honor."
The camps are especially popular with Palestinian families in Gaza, where Hamas is perceived as both less corrupt and more administratively competent than the ruling Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas.
The movement did well in municipal elections in December, January and May, and now controls 50 of 121 Palestinian local governments, mostly in the Gaza Strip. Observers believe it would have done equally well in parliamentary elections that have been postponed.
For Gaza parents, the camps provide an alternative for their children during the summer school holidays when there is little to offer in the way of recreation on Gaza's dusty streets, and kids are often seen playing in the raw sewage that flows to the sea.
"The Hamas summer camp is teaching them good behavior, teaching them to honor and respect people, instead of losing them to the streets," said 60-year-old Abdullah Fatah, as he came to check on his four grandchildren enrolled in a playground camp near his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp.
"(Hamas) follows Islam. Because they follow Islam, I trust them. I would follow them anywhere."
More than 80 percent of the 1.3 million people in the Gaza Strip live below the poverty line, with an unemployment rate of 50 percent. More than half of the population is 14 years old or younger.
"If Hamas won't watch them, who would keep them busy during the summer break?" asked Ibrahim Salah, an accountant who is also head of Hamas' education department. "When they're in the hands of Hamas, they're in good hands."
At Hamas camp, every camper gets a crisp green baseball cap. Camp officials said they have already given out 12,000 caps this year in 60 Gaza summer camps, out of 100,000 caps they ordered from a Chinese company.
"This is one of the basic things we can provide these kids -- a cap and a T-shirt," said Jasser Shameyah, a Hamas administrator. "We try to take them once in a while to a playground, special beaches with entry fees -- we can pay up to five shekels a kid."
At four separate camps visited earlier this month, the campers, who ranged in age from about 8 to 18, were organized into groups of a dozen or so with individual instructors, playing tug-of-war and wrestling, learning the Quran -- campers easily recited long sections by heart -- and munching on pita bread stuffed with hummus and a mystery meat as unidentifiable as that in any Boy Scout lunch.
Fatah, the ruling Palestinian party in the occupied territories, and other groups -- Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, for example -- also offer camps. But a tour of camps in Gaza found most bearing the green flag of Hamas.
Some American and European programs offer summer camps in Gaza, which bring Jewish and Muslim children together and emphasize peace and reconciliation. But those groups tend to attract far fewer children, from mainly well-to-do backgrounds, and put them in a Western environment, one Hamas instructor asserted, where girls without head coverings are thrown in with boys, something many Muslim parents consider unacceptable.
Hamas, following its interpretation of Islamic principles, runs separate camps for boys and girls. The children pay for the camp on a sliding scale -- from a shekel (about 25 cents) to 10 shekels for the duration, depending on their ability to pay, Hamas officials said.
"The main reason for Hamas summer camp is just for fun, to take them from the killing environment. They've gone through things they weren't prepared for," Salah, the Hamas education chief, said. "The main thing is to teach them to love their nation, Palestine. We're all one nation."
But while Hamas leaders point to their social programs as the reason for the camps' popularity, Israelis -- and some Palestinians -- are far more critical of what the young campers are learning besides horseback riding and the backstroke.
At one beach camp, attended by approximately 100 kids, an instructor wore a heavy flannel shirt under which a webbed belt could be seen strapped to his stomach. Asked by a reporter what it was, he answered, with a broad smile, "Boom!"
The instructor led a group of young teenagers through marching drills on the sand -- facing movements, close quarter drill. With a smile at the reporter, he put a megaphone to his lips.
"What are you?" he called.
"Monsters!" the kids replied.
"What are you?!"
As the instructor, Sa'eb Dormush, stepped aside for an interview, a youth in the group shouted out "moqawama!" -- resistance.
"That is the first word they learn when they are born," Dormush said with a laugh. "This is the next generation."
Across camp, a group of younger children -- most between 10 and 12 -- sat in a circle in the sand singing one of the "intifada songs" they learn at camp. One boy sang verses in a rolling soprano as the others joined in on the one-word chorus.
"We don't want to sleep.
We want revenge.
Raise it up.
If it will take a thousand martyrs.
Wherever they are.
In the name of God.
Such activities prompt Israeli officials to look harshly at the camps, especially when combined with statements from Hamas officials such as Gaza leader Mahmoud al-Zahar, who said in a recent interview that despite the current shaky hudna (truce) with Israel, Hamas will continue to attack Jewish settlements in the West Bank until Israel disengages from that area. He also said that he remains devoted to the elimination of the state of Israel altogether.
"These summer camps are an industry of a culture of hatred," said Gissin, Sharon's spokesman. "They don't teach them how to fly kites; they teach them how to become walking bombs."
Gissin said the Palestinian Authority should take over supervision of the camps and their curriculum.
"We have extremist groups (in Israel)," Gissin added. ... "They probably also have summer camps. But the minute they engage in incitement, we throw the book at them."
Last September, several days after a double suicide bombing claimed by Hamas killed 16 Israelis on two buses in the southern desert town of Beersheba, Israeli helicopters attacked what Israeli government officials said was a Hamas training camp, located on a soccer field and playground that was used as a summer camp during the day. Fourteen Hamas members were killed.
According to Hamas, Palestinian Authority officials have cited the Hamas camps' military training activities as the reason to bar Hamas from holding such camps in Palestinian public schools -- a sign, say Hamas officials, that the Palestinian Authority fears the competition.
Hassan Al Khatib, assistant deputy minister of the Palestinian National Authority Ministry of Youth and Sport, rejected the notion.
He said the Palestinian Authority, in cooperation with UNICEF, runs more than 700 camps for children and teenagers in the West Bank and Gaza.
The official Palestinian camps focus on education and art, Al Khatib said -- political content does not go far beyond singing the national anthem and saluting the Palestinian flag.
"The Palestinians don't need to have the children learn military things and politics in the summer camps. They already learn it in the occupation," he said.
The Palestinian Authority would not permit Hamas to train children with guns, Al Khatib said, and frowns on songs encouraging attacks inside Israel.
More problematic, he said, was whether children are being taught terrorism or to value what the Palestinian Authority considers legitimate resistance. And the Palestinian Authority is weak, he said, and must pick its battles.
"If we have the ability to control, we will stop this kind of (incitement)," he said. "That's not what the PNA is trying to do right now. Right now we're trying to stop Kassams (rockets fired by Hamas) on settlers and suicide bombs in Israel."
Hamas, for its part, defends its militant curriculum as essentially defensive in nature.
"We would like to train them how to react when we get attacked by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), by planes or tanks or foot patrols," said Bilal El-Nawajha, a Hamas camp director. "Because they like to go and see -- Gaza is so full of houses and people, and they get curious," he said. "When they get into a dangerous situation, we want them to know how to react."
On the beach, Osama was learning how to react, under the watchful eyes of his instructors.
"We've been instructed first to provide help to injured people, then to run away," he said.
What if he found an injured Jew? Osama stopped and looked at his instructors.
"Who shot him?" he asked.
Told to imagine he could not tell whether the Jew had been injured by Palestinians or Israelis, he paused again, looking from instructor to instructor, then replied.
"I would call a paramedic."