search

In Gaza, disaffected youth see future as Hamas fighters

Some 17,000 child soldiers graduate course by terror group; some human rights activists defend camps, but decry use of teens

  • Illustrative photo of a Palestinian youth crawling under a barbed wire obstacle during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
    Illustrative photo of a Palestinian youth crawling under a barbed wire obstacle during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
  • Palestinian youth show their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
    Palestinian youth show their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
  • Palestinian youth show their skills during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
    Palestinian youth show their skills during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015 in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
  • A file picture taken on January 29, 2015, shows Palestinian youth showing their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
    A file picture taken on January 29, 2015, shows Palestinian youth showing their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
  • A file picture taken on January 29, 2015, shows Palestinian youth showing their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
    A file picture taken on January 29, 2015, shows Palestinian youth showing their skills during a graduation ceremony as part of a training camp run by the Hamas movement in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
  • A file picture taken on January 29, 2015, shows Palestinian youth showing their skills during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (photo credit:  AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
    A file picture taken on January 29, 2015, shows Palestinian youth showing their skills during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

GAZA (AFP) — Hatem is only 14 but has already lived through three wars with Israel. Now the young Gazan says he is making sure he’ll be ready to fight in the next one.

“The Israelis killed my niece last summer. Now I want to kill them,” he told AFP after completing a week-long youth training camp with terrorists from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamist Hamas movement.

“I will become a resistance fighter,” the boy said proudly during a graduation ceremony in Gaza.

Hatem is one of 17,000 youngsters who graduated late last month from two military training camps where Hamas — the de facto power in Gaza — said it was preparing the next generation to fight against Israel.

Last summer, Israel and Hamas fought a 50-day war that killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 73 people, including 66 soldiers, on the Israeli side. Israel maintains that up to half of those killed in Gaza were Hamas fighters.

It was their third conflict in less than five years, following an eight-day conflict in 2012 and a 22-day war in late 2008 and early 2009. Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel.

Children were on the frontline of the latest conflict, with UN figures showing about 500 were killed in Gaza. Jerusalem blamed Hamas for all civilian fatalities, since it placed its rocket launchers and cross-border tunnel openings in Gaza residential areas.

Just five months after the war ended, thousands of those who survived signed up to join the Hamas training camps.

“I want to join the Qassam Brigades because they are the strongest in Gaza,” said 15-year-old Mohammed Abu Harbid, who also took part in the training.

With the humanitarian situation in post-war Gaza growing steadily worse, a fresh flare-up with Israel seems likely, some say.

And with many schools being used to shelter the displaced and unemployment standing at 41 percent, many youngsters were eager to join the camps.

Hamas insists that teaching children how to carry out terror attacks is a legitimate part of “resistance” activities against Israel.

But the camp, which accepts boys and men aged 14 to 21, has incensed human rights activists who accuse Hamas of exploiting children traumatized by war.

The group is classified as a terror group by Israel, the US and until the recently the European Union, which was forced to remove Hamas from the black list last year over a technicality.

During the summer war, the Qassam Brigades, estimated to have 20,000-25,000 fighters in its ranks, fired over 4,500 rockets and other projectiles into Israel, and staged several attacks through a system of cross-border tunnels.

The group has been running summer camps for youngsters for years, but this week-long session was a much more serious affair.

Run for the first time by terrorists from the Qassam Brigades, there were no “fun” sessions — and no mid-week visits to Gaza’s zoo.

“They were trained intensively in using light and heavy weaponry and were taught how to ambush, so they can lead the next battle for liberation,” the Brigades said on its website.

Hamas has rushed to defend the military training.

“The Western media accuse Hamas of militarizing society with their training camps, but what has the West done to stop the enemy from carrying out its crimes?” senior Hamas official Bassem Naim said. “What have we gained from 20 years of futile negotiations?”

The latest round of US-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in April 2014 and the war in Gaza has further distanced any hope of a return to negotiations to end the decades-long conflict.

“We are an occupied people and international law guarantees us the right to resist,” Naim wrote on Facebook.

But local human rights groups are accusing Hamas of exploiting children for political purposes, while defending aspects of the terror group’s activities.

“We are not disputing the right of an occupied people to resist, but it must be done by adults, not children,” one human rights activist told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The camps are making young people aggressive instead of educating them and teaching them to abide by the law,” the activist said.

Issam Yunis, head of Gaza-based human rights group Al-Mezan, said the camps were a dangerous development in a territory where more than half of the population is under 15.

“Gazan children are traumatized by the violence, so some are attracted by the military training,” he said.

“But the priority today should be to take care of their social and physical well-being.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

read more:
comments
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed