Hamas's approach to jihad: Start 'em young
The group takes a patient approach to deriving political support from religious conviction.
Gaza City, Gaza — As a weapon in its struggle with Israel, Nahool the Bee doesn't look like a particularly threatening addition to the Hamas arsenal. He doesn't even have a stinger.
But what the bright yellow star of "Tomorrow's Pioneers" on Hamas-owned Al Aqsa television lacks in muscle he makes up for in fervor. Speaking in a recent episode, Nahool vowed to help take back Jerusalem from the "criminal Jews" and expressed his hope that he and all of his listeners would grow up to become holy warriors.
The show, along with paramilitary-style summer camps for Gazan boys, reveal a key element in Hamas's long-term strategy.
Like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Hamas, the group takes a patient approach to tapping religious conviction to build political support. It is the movement's youth focus, critics say, that sets it apart from Hamas's rival, Fatah, which controls the West Bank and enjoys US and Israeli support.
The basic unit of the Hamas organization isn't cells or political committees – it's families. The organization has shown that by introducing children early enough to Hamas's hard-line Islamic thinking, it can recruit lifelong supporters.
"It hurts us so much when the international community misunderstands us," says Samir Abu Mohsen, a senior director at Al Aqsa. "Nahool isn't for teaching hate. It's for teaching children to think in the right way, to socialize them in our culture's way of life, and, of course, to remind them of their rights to the land that was taken from us."
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The Nahool puppet replaces a Mickey Mouse-like character named Farfur, who, in an episode several months ago, was shown being killed by an Israeli official after he refused to sell his land to Israelis. Director Mohsen says the show killed off Farfur because of complaints they were infringing on Disney's copyright.
Nahool tells his young audience in a high-pitched voice that his anti-Zionist passion is fueled by the memory of his grandfather, who was murdered at the hands of Israeli settlers. Both life-sized puppets have stirred outrage among critics who say that Al Aqsa television teaches children to hate.
Mohammed Ramadan, the young man who dons the Nahool costume and who also played Farfur before that character's televised martyrdom, says he's been "shocked" by international allegations that his characters teach children to hate.
"Look, Israeli aggression against us is a fact, they kicked these children's grandparents and parents from their homes, and we're not allowed to talk about this?" he asks. "They need to know."
Nevertheless, Mr. Ramadan says that he won't cross certain "red lines." "A red line would be telling children to go kill Israelis. But talking about our right to our land, to one day return? That's not a red line. That's what they need to know."
"Nahool exists for two things," says Mr. Mohsen. "Teaching basic stuff like respect for adults, looking twice before crossing the road, and respecting the environment. But No. 2, we want to make sure they remember that we're exiles from our own land, land they have to be committed to regaining."
What effect Nahool's antics have on young minds is hard to gauge.
Ahmed, a 9-year-old who says he loves recently retired soccer star Zinedine Zidane, allows that he sometimes finds the bumbling bee amusing, but doesn't hesitate to name his favorite character on Palestinian TV – Captain Majid, whose eponymous show chronicles the adventures of a soccer-obsessed boy and his World Cup dreams.
Sun, surf, and paramilitary training
As part of its long-term recruitment policy, in addition to its children's show on Al Aqsa, Hamas is sending tens of thousands of poor Gazan children to camp this summer where they can enjoy sun, surf, and paramilitary training.
"Life is so tough here we say our children are born men, but they're still just kids,'' says Mohammed, who runs the Abu Musab Hamas camp in central Gaza and asked that his full name not be used. As he speaks, rows of painfully polite 10-year-olds in green Hamas hats file off the beach at the end of the day. "They need entertainment and we give it to them, with a single goal: To get their attention so they develop good Islamic manners, bond their egos to the group, and integrate them into the right way of life."
The group sponsors additional education for top students, much of which is focused on memorizing the Koran. But Hamas isn't neglecting parents, either. The Islamic Group, Hamas's main charity in the territory, has built dozens of homes in recent months for Gazans whose houses were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. It recently held a mass wedding for about 50 policemen loyal to the movement, covering all costs and giving them a $500 head start on their new lives as married men.
To be sure, Fatah runs camps of its own for kids, but not on the scale of Hamas's outreach effort or with the same unity of purpose.
Though Mohammed mentions soccer, public safety lessons, and basic Muslim teaching, he fails to mention that many of the Gaza camps also include a paramilitary element. A Hamas official says that such training is reserved for boys over 16, but a photographer who recently visited a camp in central Gaza and others say much younger boys also take part in paramilitary exercises.
In one Gaza City camp, boys practiced field drills with wooden pistols and crawled under barbed wire while being harangued by an adult drill instructor. Teenage boys undergo a tougher regimen that includes hand-to-hand combat and exhausting exercise. Boys that break discipline are sometimes beaten with sticks, said the photographer.
"Are the camps an important part of our strategy? Of course," says Museb Malik, who runs the First Educational Childhood camp where children are divided into groups named after cities – Haifa, Acre, and Japfa – that Israel now controls and Hamas would like to someday regain. "But we're also filling an important social function. These children need something to take their minds off of the violence."
Mehmet Gishrawi, a dimpled 9-year-old at the camp, stands beneath a poster of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, and explains that he had trouble sleeping after he survived an airstrike two years ago that claimed his cousin and 20 other neighbors.
"I have had a lot of fun, I've learned a lot," he says. "I'm not as afraid now."