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In Jerusalem, battle of Palestinian day camps

A summer program to teach kids Islamic values battles ‘terrorist’ label. Meanwhile, the city has tripled funding for ‘alternative’ camps this year.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 2009

Some Israelis officials say this Islamic summer camp for kids in East Jerusalem preaches extremist ideology. Basima Alian, camp's head counselor, denies this.

Ilene Prusher/ The Christan Science Monitor

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As she hands out paper and magic markers, Basima Alian quizzes her young campers in a sing-songy voice.

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"How many times a day do we pray?" asks Ms. Alian, the head counselor.

"Five!" They respond in unison.

"Can a woman be muezzin?" she asks, referring to the individual who calls a Muslim community to prayer.

"No, only a man," one boy answers.

"How do we pray together in the mosque?"

"Men in the front, women behind them," a girl says.

Short lessons in Islam are part of the regular routine of this summer camp in Sur Baher, an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem that gained unwanted notoriety last year as the hometown of a Palestinian assailant.

The day has some time for exercise and play, but the main focus for the 4- to 9-year-olds is on building Muslim and Palestinian identity. They read passages from the Koran, sing religious anthems, and learn hadith – sayings of the prophet Muhammed.

Teaching Islamic values and Palestinian pride are certainly among the top priorities at the "Better Tomorrow" camp; indoctrination and extremism are not, say Alian and her boss, camp director Sufian Jadallah. But the camp is housed in an Islamist cultural center that Israeli police welded shut early last year, leaving behind a letter from the Interior Ministry. "This is a terrorist organization and is therefore being closed," Jadallah says, summarizing the terse letter he received, signed by the Israeli police. No other explanation was given and the center could not challenge the accusation, says Jadallah, who notes that the police are allowed to close down institutions deemed to be terrorist organizations.

"It is true that we are Islamist. Does that mean we are terrorists?" asks Mr. Jadallah, as kids get a bounce inside a lunar ride and listen to Islamic music. "Israel always uses the word 'terrorism' as a pretext for closing our institutions, but when we ask what they mean by that, they have no answers."

Since the Israeli closure order of the center, called the Culture Forum, wasn't renewed when it expired few months ago, Jadallah – who is also the head of the center – hired a welder to pry open the gates and doors of the center again. So far, the camp fun goes on, though the staff worries that they could be shut down at any time.

"Just the way they closed down the whole institution for no reason, they could come and close our camps," Jadallah says.

Jerusalem triples funding for alternative camps