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.

Rafael D. Fankel
John Ging: His UN work has made him a target.
Rafael D. Fankel
Campers: Palestinian girls at a camp run by the United Nations hold a drawing showing life in the Gaza Strip.

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."

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."

"It's potentially a good move.… It might be a good educational investment," Mr. Mishal says. "My guess is that Hamas won't allow anything that will challenge its way of thinking, and what should be done and what should be taught."

After Hamas took over Gaza in a military coup last year, Ging pleaded with the international community to alter its hard-line policies that, he says, hurt the very moderates here that Israel and the West were trying to empower. His efforts have gained him critics both here in Gaza, and in Israel and the US.

Gunmen tried to assassinate him at a ceremony at last year's summer camp – one of two attempts on his life in his two-and-a-half-year tenure in Gaza. But this year, even with Hamas fully in control, there were no attacks on the camps. In the US and Israel, conservatives have long charged that UNRWA schools are infiltrated by Hamas and other hard-liners who use foreign funds to teach hatred of Jews and Israel to young Gazans.

Ging denies these charges and says he maintains a strict policy against any political affiliation and political preaching. But it's impossible to keep politics entirely out of the UNRWA camps. In one arts and crafts session, groups of girls drew images of child labor and poverty and Israeli tanks laying siege on Gaza.

The point of the arts lesson, says site director Samah al-Tana, is to help the girls express themselves and "release all the pressures" from their daily lives.

"The difference between our camps," Ms. Tana says, "is that [the Hamas] camps are a political camp. Here they come freely to get away from politics and away from the differences that separate us."

At Al-Shati Refugee Camp, Hazzim al-Wazer, one of the instructors, says violence is rampant on Gaza's streets and that "has a negative effect on the children as they grow up."

With his long beard, Mr. Wazer resembles many of the young Hamas members dressed in black and roaming the strip with AK-47s. But he attributes his decision not to join them to his parents, who raised him in a nonviolent home, and to the opportunity he had as a child to play soccer with the Palestinian national team.

This is the example Ging wants to show the outside world.

"These are horrendous circumstances," Ging says. "Every good and descent person here in Gaza – mothers and fathers – are struggling to protect and insulate their children from the effects of the environment. They don't want their children to grow up and become violent adults.

"It has long been that the generation coming up is the one we are most concerned about because the experiences they are having are the people they are becoming – violent, hopeless – it is self-reinforcing."

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled the name of John Ging.]

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