Human rights organizations in the Gaza Strip are voicing concern over the growing number of children participating in Hamas’ military training camps. During a two-week school holiday in late January, some 17,000 children and young men participated in the “Pioneers of Freedom” camps run by Hamas’ military wing. The camps have become a hit in a situation where tens of thousands of children still lack any kind of stable framework: The promised reconstruction after last summer’s war in Gaza has been long delayed, so tens of thousands of families are still without permanent housing, while basic infrastructure, including the electricity supply, has yet to return to pre-war levels.
Hatem, one of the teens who attended Hamas camp, is just 14, but he has already lived through three wars with Israel. Now, he’s proud of being ready for the next war. “The Israelis killed my niece last summer. Now I want to kill them,” he told the AFP news agency after finishing the camp.
“I will become a resistance fighter,” he added proudly, speaking at the camp’s concluding ceremony in Gaza.
Mustafa Khalil, a human rights activist in Gaza, told Haaretz that the camps have become popular mainly because no alternative frameworks are available. But he also cited another reason: “It’s impossible to ignore the fact that no fewer than 500 children were killed in the war, and thousands of children were wounded,” he said. “Almost nobody treated these children, who have experienced the trauma of killing, death and bombing. Therefore, when Hamas talks about a camp that trains the children militarily, there’s no doubt many will be interested out of a desire for vengeance or a feeling that this will increase their self-confidence in dealing with the Strip’s difficult situation.”
Khalil noted that the idea of military training camps for kids isn’t a Hamas invention: When the Palestinian Authority was first established in Gaza following the 1993 Oslo Accord, it set up similar camps, which were closed down only several years later.
Moreover, he noted, schools still teach classes in “Heroism,” in which students do physical training and learn unarmed combat. He opposes this, and has written on his Facebook page that children should be given a good education, not turned into fighters at such a young age.
Palestinian human rights organizations accuse Hamas of exploiting the children for political purposes. “We are not disputing the right of an occupied people to resist, but it must be done by adults, not children,” one human rights activist told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The camps are making young people aggressive instead of educating them and teaching them to abide by the law.”
Hamas, however, insists that military training for children is a legitimate act of “resistance” against Israel. “The Western media accuse Hamas of militarizing society with their training camps, but what has the West done to stop the enemy from carrying out its crimes?” senior Hamas official Bassem Naim wrote on his Facebook page. “We are an occupied people and international law guarantees us the right to resist.”
Some 30,000 people are still living in schools throughout the Gaza Strip because they lost their homes during the war and have yet to find a new one. This forces many of the remaining schools to teach in shifts, with elementary school students learning in the morning and middle- and high-school students in the afternoon. “They want to paint us as a violent, militant society, but they should come and see the conditions our children study in, and then they’d understand,” one elementary school teacher told Haaretz. “My feeling is that they lost an entire generation in this war.”