Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A Teen's Life in Gaza - Terrorism training, with beatings for anyone sporting "cool" haircuts or skinny jeans

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Much of the attention regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects have been, somewhat understandably, focused on "hard" policy issues such as the refugee situation, resolution of the conflicting territorial claims (including land swaps, the status of Jerusalem and settlements) and questions of mutual recognition. While these will undoubtedly be key issues in any future negotiations, over-emphasising "hard" policy questions means that crucial precursors for both making peace and for the long term sustainability of any peace agreement end up being overlooked. While everyone is talking about the stalemate in negotiations and its political causes, too few are asking what are the social root causes of the apparent lack of ability to reach an agreement.

One such crucial aspect is the willingness of each side's general public to view the other side as a legitimate entity, and to engage in interaction with it by peaceful means, even in areas of disagreement. To get the populations on both sides of the conflict to change their perception of the other side from enemy or rival to partner or even friend is by no means an easy feat. Yet every peace studies student, every conflict resolution scholar and every practitioner, politician or diplomat involved in such processes would tell you that this is a key element in building stable and lasting peace. They would also tell you that such a change in perceptions starts with education.

Education in the Palestinian territories has long been a major source of concern for analysts and commentators in the region. Incitement in Palestinian Authority-approved textbooks, glorification of terrorists and suicide bombers by naming landmarks and events after them and hateful content on childrens' television shows have been cited as examples of the dangers of ‘teaching hate,' and thus perpetuating the conflict. This phenomenon raises huge challenges for peace prospects, as they counter and hinder the perception shift required for such an agreement to even be reached.

Nowhere is this ‘teaching hate' trend more troubling than in Gaza. Recent reports exposed a new ‘military'-training program, al-Futuwwa ("youth"), which was introduced by Hamas in high-schools throughout the Gaza Strip. Since September 37,000 boys, between the ages of 15 and 17, take part in this program weekly as part of their curriculum. What does the program entail? What every teenager needs - training in how to use Kalashnikov assault rifles and other weapons. In fact, according to a press release in the name of General Director of Educational Activities at Hamas' Education Ministry, Mohammed Syam (published on the interior ministry website), the program focuses on "military exercises, particularly on weapons training and skills training in the field of military confrontation". Syam stated that "the aim is to teach students how to make decisions and take responsibility to know their commitments and obligations." What could be the "commitments and obligations" of 15-year-olds? Well, according to a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, this program is part of Hamas' indoctrination activities aimed at the younger generation, starting from kindergarten, with the purpose of spreading Hamas' ideology - meaning the responsibility and commitment to the "liberation of Palestine", the refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist, following the path of jihad and holding radical islamist values. Hamas is, in fact, breeding the next generation of military and political operatives, which, as they themselves put it, would "serve the homeland" and "expel the Zionist occupation from the land of Palestine".

For those who seek further proof of Hamas' sinister intentions, one need not look further than the second activity offered to Gaza's adolescents. Five thousand of them participated in similar two-week-long training camps during school breaks, also part of the al-Futuwwa program. In these camps, they learn not only how to use guns, but also grenades and improvised explosive devices, with the assistance of Hamas' "military wing"- the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades. Seems like someone in Gaza thinks that terrorists are not only "heroes," but also make good educators.

Meanwhile, in Hamas-style "summer camps" there are no nature-walks, team sports, swimming, talent shows or arts and crafts classes. Instead, they have a "military display" in front of an audience, where teens carry Kalashnikovs and shoot live artillery shells at a "watchtower" with an Israeli flag - simulating a takeover of an IDF post and abduction of Israeli soldiers - as was shown in a Youtube video from the Gamal Abdel Nasser school near the city of Gaza.

Seventeen-year-old Mohammad, whose brother was a militant killed in the 2009 operation in Gaza, participated in one of the camps and told the Guardian that "they told us the purpose was to know how to defend ourselves and how to confront the occupation." Now he says he supports Hamas and is considering joining Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades.

In an unusual and uncharacteristic step towards so-called gender equality, and no doubt due to the great "success" of the program, the Hamas government is considering introducing a similar course for girls next year (although a final decision has not been made).

Even to people in Gaza the program seems extreme. Samir Zakout, director of the field research unit at the Gaza-based human rights organisation al-Mezan (which is often highly critical of Israel) repeatedly criticised the program, calling it "empty and with no educational content". To the Guardian, he added that

"it's unbelievable. Hamas has been cutting sports activities in schools for the past six years, saying there is no time in the curriculum, but now they find the time to have military training inside schools... they should not be doing this. It's building a military culture, familiarising boys with resistance and creating the next generation of militants."

He's quite right, but for Hamas, that's the point.

Of course, training teens to be next-generation terrorists may be the most overt exploitation of the education system by Hamas to promote its own rejectionist and violent agenda, but it is not the only one. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), which runs mosts Palestinian schools, is quite happy to assist, or at least turn a blind eye, to this process. A new video by the Israel-based Center for Near East Policy Research shows that not only are the textbooks used very problematic, at one school children are taught to shout in the morning "Glory and eternal life to the martyrs and the righteous, Jerusalem is ours, we will liberate it." Another instructor says that many of the more religious teachers tell students that "Israel must be wiped out." This has an effect - with two clips showing students under 10 speaking about the need to kill all Jews.

Meanwhile, outside the educational system Hamas has escalated its war against all-things-Western recently - including apparently in Gaza's libraries.

For example, they closed down the English language club, a voluntary public initiative, at Gaza's municipal public library. No reason was given for suspending the club, which convened in a public area in the library. No other activity was offered in its place. Only when the head of the English club, Sa'ad Habib, asked library officials for a reason as to why the club has been closed, was an explanation provided. It was claimed the venue was being used for "training sessions," despite the fact that the club used to meet in an open, public area, not used by the library for training.
Habib, like many of his students, was very disappointed by the decision:

"As a citizen carrying a Palestinian ID, it is my right to use the public library for the purpose for which it was built: to bolster the education of individuals, thus advancing society... [the English club] met for only two hours each week. It is impossible and illogical to say that the library is overcrowded with activity because of a training session for students held two hours a week."

The municipality has also forbidden students from using their laptops at the library, disconnected public access to the internet and banned interaction between boys and girls from the age of nine at libraries and public centres. A statement said that the use of private laptops and the internet network has been banned because they were being used for "improper purposes such as viewing inappropriate video clips that insult the morals, religion and values of the Palestinian people."

Some might think that closing down English language clubs or limiting internet access in public libraries and centres is a minor issue. But unfortunately it is yet another symptom of a worrying trend- Hamas seems to want to raise a generation that is disconnected from the Western world and is learned to believe that there is nothing in the "outside" world that matters- except islamist values and jihad.

Think this interpretation is too harsh? Think again; to distance youth from the influences of the modern world, Gaza's police forces are now forcefully shaving off guys' hair if their hairstyle is too "cool,"- for example if they have long hair or if they use hair gel. A spokesperson for Hamas in Gaza, Ihab al-Ghusain explained explained exactly what Hamas wants to achieve with this new "modesty campaign", saying that "Young people should be concerned with their education and what Israel is doing to us, rather than concentrating on the outside world and pop-star haircuts."

And indeed, in the name of this goal, numerous humiliating arrests of young men in Gaza have been taking place recently - and the only charge is related to their hairstyle or their "skinny" jeans or jeans with a low-waist cut. In April alone, at least 41 Gazans were pulled off the streets, sometimes blindfolded, sometimes without any explanation for their sudden arrest, and taken to police stations. There, they were mocked and beaten and their hair was shaved off. The physical pain often lasted for days. The emotional and psychological humiliation is likely much deeper.

One of these guys, Rajou Hayak, was on his way to a health clinic with his wheelchair-bound father at the time of his arrest. "It was humiliating," he recalls," This policy has nothing to do with jeans or hairstyles. Hamas is just trying to make Gaza afraid of them."

And according to the testament of another victim of the campaign, Ayman al-Sayed, these scare tactics seem to work. After his arrest Ayman said :"the only thing I want to do is to leave this country. I am scared. They just take you from the street without reason. I don't know that they are going to do next."

This is only the newest measure in a long line of policies aimed at enforcing a narrow Taliban-style Islamist fundamentalism. Previously Hamas introduced new strict dress-code for female students at the universities and, more recently, Hamas approved a gender segregation law which would apply in all schools from the age of nine (including a ban on male teachers of girls' classes, and vice versa).

Clearly, Hamas is trying to seal-off Gaza's youth from any external influences and focus on the "resistance" against Israel, while promoting "military" training and terrorism by its own military wing. They are trying to raise a generation which will hate the West and Israel, will not be able to communicate with the outside world, and even in a globalised environment, will find other cultures extremely foreign. This militarised, fundamentalist and Islamist approach to educating and influencing the youth could have devastating effects on the prospects of lasting peace with Israel - first and foremost because Hamas' version of education is teaching hate, and secondly because it is actively denying Gazan youth any opportunity to access any alternative information or question Hamas' values.
Putting aside all the "hard" policy differences on the parameters of a peace agreement, it is hard to think of a more serious obstacle to peace than what Hamas is doing to the population it rules in Gaza.