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UN, Hamas compete over Gaza summer camps

Children’s camp vandalized, no claim of responsibility

A U.N. summer camp in Gaza was vandalized Monday by unknown men as competition heightens between the international organization and the Islamic resistance movement Hamas over the children of the besieged strip.

Two dozen men stormed a beach day camp run by the UNRWA in central Gaza at dawn Monday when children were not present. They slashed tents and an inflatable swimming pool and broke toys after tying up the guards.

Hamas police issued a statement condemning the attack, while there was no claim of responsibility by any of the suspected militant groups. Several extremist groups in the strip have been accusing the U.N. of corrupting Palestinian youths and objected to skills they teach the children like dancing.

Both Hamas and the United Nations compete for attracting children under the age of 15 in Gaza, roughly estimated at 700,000, thus making up around half the population of the 1.5 million in the strip.

While U.N. camps focus on games, crafts, and entertainment activities which staff say aim at instilling in them hope for a better future, Hamas camps are more politicized as instructors introduce the children to their condition as an occupied people and raise their awareness about the necessity of fighting Israel. Hamas camps also teach swimming, sailing, and horseback riding.

Children at the Hamas camps are also given lectures on the teachings of Islam and asked to memorize verses from the Quran.

According to Hamas, nearly 100,000 youths have signed up for its camps, which are estimated at 700 throughout the strip, compared to 250,000 that joined the U.N. Registration in both camps is for free. The UNRWA program runs for two weeks and Hamas camps for 10 days.

UNRWA educators argue that this generation of Gaza youths is much more vulnerable than the previous ones since it bore witness to the 2008-2009 Israeli aggression on the strip and has for years been suffering under the blockade. That is why, they add, they should not be taught any activities related to militancy and resistance, which Hamas presumably does.

On the other hand, Hamas officials argue that it is necessary to raise a generation that will lead the liberation of Palestine and defeat the Zionist enemy. Each Hamas camp is named after one of the resistance movement’s prisoners, and instructors tell children about the circumstances under which each of them was imprisoned.

So far, Hamas has been shunning any confrontation with the UNRWA, which provides education, medical care, and food for almost two thirds of the besieged Gazans. The UNRWA has likewise been avoiding contact with Hamas.

Although both the UNRWA and Hamas are trying to promote their own outlook to life in their respective camps, parents mainly aim at offering their children a diversion from the stress of poverty and the blockade and away from political conflicts. Children are, therefore, sent to summer camps to seek the entertainment they cannot find anywhere else in the impoverished strip.