Hamas's approach to jihad: Start 'em young
The group takes a patient approach to deriving political support from religious conviction.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."