‘No time left for playing’: Young Gazans receive military training at summer camps

Published August 12th, 2015 - 09:00 GMT
Al Bawaba
Al Bawaba

The young participants of Talae al-Awad summer camp are decked out in the signature red of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and have had their faces smeared in camouflage battle-paint.

They crawl on their elbows and drag themselves through dirt and rocks beneath rusted barbed wire.

Talae al-Awda, meaning Vanguards of the Return, is one of several summer camps across the beleaguered Gaza Strip that in recent weeks has started to offer military training to tens of thousands of Palestinians, some as young as 14.

The summer camps are each organized by a separate political faction, and Talae al-Awda is run by the military wing of the PFLP.

"We undertake military training so that we are prepared to protect our homeland and ready to take back our land that was occupied in 1948," said Saif al-Khalifa, one of the camp's youngsters.

The boy's friend and a fellow participant, Karam Arafat, said that he hoped one day to be a leader like the camp trainers, and that meant it was time he put his childhood behind him.

"If you want to be a leader, there is no time left for playing," Arafat said.

Growing up to the sound of shells

Human rights activists have condemned the camps as a forced militarization of Gazan society and a violation of children's rights.

Fadil Abu Hein, a Gaza-based psychoanalyst, said he was worried that Gaza’s children are being forced into a stage they are not psychologically prepared for.

"During childhood, children need to play, have fun, feel happy and all such things which help develop the human character after a school year full of pressures," Abu Hein told Ma'an.

However, life has been difficult for all residents of the blockaded coastal enclave, which has seen three devastating wars with Israel in the last six years.

More than 2,200 Palestinians were killed in last year’s war, mostly civilians, including more than 500 were children.

During the 55-day offensive, some 3,500 Palestinian children were injured, 219 schools damaged and 22 completely destroyed.

Following the conflict, the UN said: "There is not a single child who has not been adversely affected by the recent conflict in Gaza, where children suffer from bed-wetting, difficulties in sleeping, nightmares, a loss of appetite, and display more aggressive behavior at school."

The statement highlighted that half of Gaza's 1.8 million people are under the age of 18.

The General Supervisor for PFLP's summer camp, Mahmoud al-Ras, said that conflict has changed Gaza's children, making them mentally older than their peers abroad.

"Having monitored these kids, we realized that they have become mature men because they grew up hearing sounds of shells and missiles and watching the resistance in Gaza cause heavy casualties against the occupation," al-Ras said.

Resistance a legitimate right

At Hamas' summer camp, Talae al-Tahrir, meaning Vanguards of Liberation, Palestinian youngsters sported black t-shirts with matching black cargo pants, while their trainers wore tan military fatigues.

One of the Hamas-affiliated trainers, wearing a mask over his face, told Ma'an that he believed the camp was instilling positive values in Gaza's youth, leading them away from negative temptations.

"If we don't invest in this generation for the common good, they will be taken advantage of for evil things," he said.

He added: "We show them that we aren't terrorists, but resistance fighters defending our homeland, our religion and the people of Palestine, and that this is a religious issue, and not about political parties or factions."

A total of 25,000 Palestinians, from 14 to 55 years old, took part in the camp this year, he said.

The masked trainer said that Talae al-Tahrir trained participants in urban warfare, using tunnels, self-defense and civil defense. Trainees were also taught how to use different weapons and how to move between bunkers and barricades.

He added that one of the camp's major aims is to strengthen the youth against possible attempts by Israeli intelligence to recruit them as informers.

The conduct of Hamas during last summers' war was probed by a UN Commission of Inquiry, which ultimately said that it had gathered "credible allegations" that both Israeli and Palestinian sides committed war crimes during the conflict.

However, Hamas welcomed the report and pledged to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, saying that it viewed the potential court hearings as a venue to seek justice and enter into what it has termed a "legal battle" with Israel.

One of the organizers of the PFLP's Talae al-Awda said simply that the goal of the camps is "to maintain that resistance is a legitimate right and that resistance fighters whose houses have been targeted during successive wars on Gaza won’t be outcast in their communities."

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