By DIAA HADID, Associated Press
AL-QARARA, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Islamic militant Hamas has won a vital battle with the U.N. over the hearts of Gaza's children, moving unopposed into the summer camp sector this year after the world body ran out of money.
That means Gaza kids who go to camp will have only the option of those that are heavy with lessons on Islam, political indoctrination and, in some cases, paramilitary training.
Gone are the U.N. camps that reached 250,000 children in each session with a lighter-hearted fare of sports and games. But they cost $12 million, and a sharp drop in donations forced the U.N. to call them off.
"This is a great loss for children," child psychologist Fadel Abu Hein said.
Hamas camp counselors say children spend most of the day playing in their camps, and say it's only fair that as an Islamic movement, they would instruct children about their religion, and as Palestinians, teach them about their homeland.
"Our camps are about education and play," said senior camp counselor Abdullah Abdul-Ghafour. "But we can't divorce children from their surroundings."
Emad Abdullah, 42, a former police officer, said that in previous years, his three children went to U.N. camps. This year, they stayed home because he did not want any faction indoctrinating his children.
Still, if the U.N. camps don't reopen next year, "we must send them to a Hamas camp so they can have some fun," he said, "and spare my wife the headache of having them around at home all day."
Hamas has dominated Gaza's political and cultural life since the 2007 takeover, sidelining opponents and crushing dissent. It has tried for years to inject its strict version of Islam, such as separating the sexes and restricting women's freedoms, into already conservative Gaza, but usually pulled back when encountering resistance from the community.
In this setting, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is the last major independent force in Gaza. The agency is largely immune to interference from the Hamas government because it provides education, health care and food staples to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who make up the bulk of Gaza's 1.7 million people.
Both sides have been trying to mold youngsters in separate school systems, but summer camps are fertile ground since activities are less structured.
U.N. camps offered children two weeks of crafts, swimming, acting and mental health counseling. Some were co-ed, making them targets for Islamic zealots who repeatedly trashed camp sites.
In Hamas camps, boys ride horses and play football. They are also taught about Islam and told to fight Israel to liberate Palestine. Girls don't participate in sports because it's considered improper. Instead, they learn cooking and embroidery.
Many in Gaza seem to prefer to keep their kids at home rather than in the care of Hamas. Enrollment in Hamas camps — some 70,000 boys and 50,000 girls — isn't significantly above what it was last year.
In one Hamas camp in the southern Gaza village of al-Qarara, counselors staged a religion and culture quiz for two dozen boys in matching T-shirts and green Hamas caps.
Name a fact you have just learned, a counselor told the boys. "Real Madrid is the team of the century," one teenager said, referring to the famed Spanish football club. Another boy said Muslims wash themselves before praying.
Nearby, a group of boys played football. Some lined up to shoot at a target using a pellet gun. Others rode a horse. Counselors said they were following the teachings of legendary Muslim leader Omar Ibn al-Khattab, who urged children to learn horseback riding, swimming and archery — now interpreted as shooting.
A counselor claimed girls don't like sports. Instead, they learn baking, embroidery, theater and do Islamic quizzes. They also dissected a rabbit for a science lesson. Some of the girls visited a dusty park nearby, said camper Aisha Nahal, 14.
Special camps are arranged for selected boys over the age of 14.
Aisha's cousin Saher, 14, went to a regular Hamas-run summer camp in June. Then counselors asked him to join a "scout" camp.
For a week, Saher learned to slide over thorns using his elbows for propulsion, alongside two dozen other youths. He drilled running and jumping through flaming hoops.
Those camps appear a way to tease out potential recruits for Hamas' military wing, but counselor Abdul-Ghafour denied that, saying the camps merely taught scouting skills.
Abu Hein, the child psychologist, warned of the danger of leaving summer camps solely in the hands of militant groups.
"Do we want to militarize our entire society?" he said. "Children need space to play."
Gaza's children, who make up half the population, don't have many other options. Most areas don't have public parks. Parents can't afford transport to take their children to the beach or private playgrounds. Electric power comes on for five hours twice a day, keeping the television off most of the time.
That leaves the streets. At any time of the day, children of all ages crowd the streets, playing in piles of sand or debris. Elementary school-age children sometimes watch over barefoot toddlers. Boys play football in alleys.
Both the Hamas and the U.N. camps were free. Hamas is funded by a variety of sources, including patron Iran, donations from the Muslim world and local revenues, such as taxes levied on goods smuggled in through tunnels under the border with Egypt.
UNRWA's camps were canceled because of a shortfall in donations that hit the U.N.'s emergency program, including distributing food to more than 700,000 Gazans, said the local agency chief, Robert Turner.
Of the $225 million that the U.N. requested for emergency Gaza programs this year, it only received $62 million, Turner said. He said donor fatigue and Europe's economic crisis were to blame.
He declined to discuss the impact of canceling the summer camps, but said, "we just couldn't justify paying for summer games when we currently lack the money we require for food."
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed.
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