It is that time of the year again when Hamas provides its own brand of ‘summer fun’. Over the past month, most have piggybacked on a one-minute AFP video that declared, “Gaza children play war at Hamas summer camp.” The Huffington Post noted that at these camps Gaza children played “kidnap the soldier.” But despite the ritual accusations of Hamas providing military-style training at summer camps to children, few can deny both their existence in the Gaza Strip and their possibly detrimental impact on the next generation of Palestinians. That said, it was ironically on an ‘official tour’ of a non-military summer camp that a far more nuanced, yet complete image of this Hamas endeavour materialized.
It’s just a summer camp?
Currently themed as the “Generation of Return”, Hamas summer camps cater to 100,000 children all over the Gaza Strip and have been in place since the beginning of the siege. This particular two-week camp, based in the Asma’a Bint Abu Bakr Low Basic Girls School, catered for boys between the ages of 10 and 13. Rubbishing reports that Hamas ‘promotes killing’ in such camps, organizers said, “They are children. Their only concern is to play. Then why should we give them weapons? We only promote entertainment, a new lifestyle and try to remove the stress and psychological pressure of living in the Gaza Strip.” Almost prophetically then, an Israeli jet, promptly identified as an F-16, roared over our heads. And within the camp, one couldn’t ignore all the familiar normal signs: a ‘slip and slide’, ping-pong table, obstacle course, computer gaming room and corners for dodge-ball and football, all echoing the fact that this is just a summer camp. Moreover, it seemed like the children were having fun. My translator noted, “Our children are very simple. Anything makes them happy.”
But, if simplicity and normalcy seem to be the order of the day, the complexity and abnormality of the Gaza Strip’s environment rarely escapes the keen eye. Surrounded by visible manifestations of war, most ostensibly by a mosque bombed during Operation Cast Lead, this camp then also finds itself steeped in the symbolism of the political environment that surrounds it.
With a song for the ‘Right of Return’ playing in the background, the struggle for Palestine is the undertone of this Hamas endeavour. Walking in, visitors are ‘encouraged’ to take a pledge of allegiance that they are committed to the liberation of all of Palestine. A replica of a key represents the ‘Right of Return’, the Koran the ‘righteous path’ and a wooden gun the failure of negotiations. The obstacle course, along with its ‘fun-factor’, was described by an organizer as a “lesson that only if we cooperate with each other can we reach our goal.” When asked to explain the utility of children lining up to march around the school, I was told, “the occupation tries to say that we are savages or random people. Now we can say that we are organized.” Before leaving, one organizer reminded me, “We are a people fighting for our rights. We are under occupation but we are committed to every inch of our land.” Pointing to a map of historic Palestine I interrupted “Without Israeli checkpoints?” He replied, “Without Israel at all.”
Rebuilding a ‘fractured being’
One cannot ignore the eerily politicized nature of Hamas-fashioned ‘summer fun’. With or without weapons training, it is at its core an attempt to reconstitute Palestinian-ness in the face of what Fawaz Turki has termed a ‘fractured being’. Gaza-living is paradoxical and all but easy. While a functioning infrastructure, fast-speed internet and a semblance of law and order are a far-cry from the horrific war-time images of the Strip, sonic booms from patrolling F-16s and images of the martyred dotting the urban landscape reminds its populace that they are still fighting.
Then, as you ‘fight’ Israel, you are compelled to use Israeli products and, most significantly its currency. While the sea represents a world of looming opportunities, the Rafah and Eretz crossings symbolize the caution that Palestinians need to exercise when ‘dreaming big’. As a senior Hamas official, on condition of anonymity, pointed out, “We are not allowed to have a vision. People here think short-term and are concerned with their immediate needs because we don’t know what destiny looms in the future.”
The result then is a society caught between the façade of order and the manifestations of disorder, a dangerous concoction that often manifests itself in bouts of public and domestic fits of violence. It is a people that slowly loses itself and, almost morbidly finds a sense of self in conditions of suffering, reminiscent in statements such as “I couldn’t succeed. But that’s what being Palestinian is all about.”
As Hamas intervenes to gather together pieces of a shattered society, it of course attempts to rebuild Palestinians, a key foundation on which the future Palestinian state would stand. But, what one is also struck by is the paranoia that the cause could disappear. Pledging one’s commitment to all of Palestine and promoting a lifestyle that is informed by the ‘cause’, the summer camp is also an attempt to keep Palestine alive. It is in no uncertain terms an investment in planting the seeds of the thought, identity and spirit of what Hamas sees as a perennial struggle for a national home.
All photographs by the author.