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With no UN summer camps, Hamas fills gap in Gaza

Islamic militant group offers mix of religion, play

AL-QARARA, Gaza Strip — The Islamic militant group Hamas has won a vital battle with the United Nations over the hearts of Gaza’s children, moving unopposed into the summer camp sector this year after the world body ran out of money.

That means Gaza kids who go to camp will choose among those that are heavy with lessons on Islam, political indoctrination, and, in some cases, paramilitary training.

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Gone are the UN camps that reached 250,000 children in each session with a lighter-hearted fare of sports and games. But they cost $12 million, and a sharp drop in donations forced the United Nations to call them off.

‘‘This is a great loss for children,’’ child psychologist Fadel Abu Hein said.

Hamas camp counselors say that children spend most of the day playing in their camps, and they argue that it’s only fair that as an Islamic movement, they would instruct children about their religion, and as Palestinians, teach them about their homeland.

‘‘Our camps are about education and play,’’ said senior camp counselor Abdullah Abdul-Ghafour. ‘‘But we can’t divorce children from their surroundings.’’

Emad Abdullah, 42, a former police officer, said that in previous years, his three children went to UN camps. This year, they stayed home because he did not want any faction indoctrinating his children.

Still, if the UN camps don’t reopen next year, ‘‘we must send them to a Hamas camp so they can have some fun,’’ he said, ‘‘and spare my wife the headache of having them around at home all day.’’

Hamas has dominated Gaza’s political and cultural life since the 2007 takeover, sidelining opponents and crushing dissent. It has tried for years to inject its strict version of Islam, such as separating the sexes and restricting women’s freedoms, into already conservative Gaza, but has usually pulled back when encountering resistance from the community.

In this setting, the UN Relief and Works Agency is the last major independent force in Gaza. The agency is largely immune to interference from the Hamas government because it provides education, health care, and food staples to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, who make up the bulk of Gaza’s 1.7 million people. Both sides have been trying to mold youngsters in separate school systems, but summer camps are fertile ground since activities are less structured.

UN camps offered children two weeks of crafts, swimming, acting, and mental health counseling. Some were coed, making them targets for Islamic zealots who repeatedly ransacked campsites.

In Hamas camps, boys ride horses and play soccer. They are also taught about Islam and told to fight Israel to liberate Palestine. Girls don’t participate in sports because it is considered improper. Instead, they learn cooking and embroidery.

Many in Gaza seem to prefer to keep their kids at home rather than in the care of Hamas.

In one Hamas camp in the southern Gaza village of al-Qarara, counselors staged a religion and culture quiz for two dozen boys in matching T-shirts and green Hamas caps.

Name a fact you have just learned, a counselor told the boys. ‘‘Real Madrid is the team of the century,’’ one teenager said, referring to the famed Spanish soccer club. Another boy said Muslims wash themselves before praying.

Nearby, a group of boys played soccer. Some lined up to shoot at a target using a pellet gun. Others rode a horse. Counselors said they were following the teachings of legendary Muslim leader Omar Ibn al-Khattab, who urged children to learn horseback riding, swimming, and archery — now interpreted as shooting.

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