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Will summer fun foil Gaza's extremism?

The United Nations ran summer camps for more than 250,000 Palestinian children in a bid to combat militancy that often takes root at a young age in Gaza.

By Rafael D. FrankelCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2008

John Ging: His UN work has made him a target.

Rafael D. Fankel

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AlShati Refugee Camp, Gaza

Walid Sharif just executed a near-flawless somersault on the trampoline. Then, with a wide 8-year-old grin of three missing teeth, he proclaimed this was "the best place in all of Gaza."

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For the second summer in a row, Walid participated in camps run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN arm devoted to Palestinian refugees, that gave some 250,000 refugee children at more than 350 locations in the impoverished Gaza Strip some sense of summertime normalcy – sports, arts and crafts, relay races, swimming, and even hula-hooping.

But the camps were about more than fun and games, they were about countering the extremism that can take root here at the earliest ages, says John Ging, UNRWA's Gaza director. While Israel and the West use economic embargoes and political isolation in an effort to compel Gazans to moderate their ideology and behavior, Mr. Ging's strategy can be summed up like this: Let the children play.

The $4 million summer program that ended Aug. 24 gave "the children some outlet for their talent and also for their physical development," Ging says, "and a break from the oppressive and depressing environment which is their daily reality."

The militancy he wants to combat has existed for years here and is reenforced at summertime programs run by Hamas, the Islamist group now in control of the Gaza Strip. It runs its own summer camps where children learn martial arts, train with fake weapons, and chant slogans of hatred toward Israel and the United States.

"[The extremists'] currency is violence," Ging says. "The circumstances unfortunately do assist them in their recruitment of supporters. This is a reality. But every time we have put it to the population here to choose between the agenda of extremists or the agenda of a civilized society, we have never been disappointed."

Ultimately, whether programs like the summer camps succeed in curbing the rise of radicalism in the younger generations here will depend more on whether Hamas charts a course of political moderation, says Shaul Mishal, author of "The Palestinian Hamas."