Inside the courtyard of the Gamal Abdel Nasser School in the Shajaiyah neighborhood east of Gaza City, students carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and dressed in military fatigues take their positions for a demonstration — an attack on an Israeli military site represented by a makeshift watchtower flying the Israeli flag. A YouTube video shows a segment of the demonstration in which one of the boys hits the tower inside the school with an artillery shell to cheers of encouragement and cries of “Allahu akbar.”
The demonstration is part of a military training program for students that the Hamas Ministry of Education has been running since the beginning of the school year in Gaza. The program is a project to train 5,000 students, aged 15–17 from 65 schools, under the supervision of national security officers from the Ministry of Interior and the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.
Mutassim Minawi, director of public relations at the Ministry of Education, said in an interview with Al-Monitor, “There is an urgent need to train the younger generation and physically equip them, given that we live under an Israeli occupation which is targeting adults and children.”
Video of the student demonstration
“Our duty, as the Ministry of Education, is to prepare the new generation to confront the enemy and the occupation because they're the generation of victory, liberation and confrontation,” he added. He contended that the program aims to guide young people to the "right track" and introduce them to their role in a "society that symbolizes resistance, values and the Islamic message in order to reduce the negative phenomena and think of ways to treat them.”
Col. Mohammed al-Nakhaleh, who oversees the program from the Ministry of Interior, explained that the training includes a number of "paramilitary" skills as well as lectures on discipline, sacrifice, hygiene and the concepts of military service and redemption of the homeland. In addition, there are lessons on the conflict with the “Zionist occupation.”
“We have also started security awareness programs dedicated to the youth, because we are aware of the fierce attack waged by the occupation against our people and because of the spread of modern technology, which is now within the reach of the youth and through which the occupation intelligence is trying to sneak,” he said.
He revealed that the security lectures focus on the foundations and principles of security for Palestinian society and the importance of being careful not to fall into the “trap of the intelligence and collusion, and the danger of being lenient with websites, social-networking sites and mobile phones, overusing them and receiving calls from unknown parties.”
The Ministry of Education has decided to develop the youth program and expand it in coming years to girls’ schools after the preparation of a curriculum specifically designed for females in grades 10 and 11.
Mohamed Siam, general manager of educational activities at the ministry, said in a press release published on the website of the Ministry of Interior that the “program's focus in the next phase will be on the military exercises, particularly on weapons training and skills training in the field of military confrontation.”
Mohammed al-Zaidi, 16, from Gaza City, was happy to participate in the program this year. He said, “It is a great honor for me to participate in the program, during which I will prepare psychologically and physically at the security and military levels to confront the Zionist occupation in any confrontation to come.”
Zaidi said that in addition to sports and fitness training, he had received training from instructors from the Qassam Brigades on the use of weapons and basic military skills, at school and sometimes outside it, along with social and psychological training.
Columnist Mustafa Ibrahim criticized the program and its negative effects on students, saying it denies them a sports session, adding that it allows officers to meddle in the behavior and problems of students.
Ibrahim told Al-Monitor, “Officers intervene in the education of students in a violent and non-educational way. They punish them — instead of teachers, psychologists and social workers [doing it] — and force harsh physical exercises on those who show up late for the morning schedule.”
The Ministry of Education intends to set up special summer camps for students currently participating in the programs as well as for others from complementary classes in the Gaza Strip.
Usually, Hamas and Islamic Jihad organize similar summer camps on an annual basis for students of all ages, some of whom receive military training. Meanwhile, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency organizes the non-militaristic “Summer Games” camps.
Young people in the Gaza Strip are often exposed to military confrontations with Israel. Chief among these were Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Cloud, during which Israeli troops swept through border areas.
Minawi said that the youth program was preceded by an awareness program called Soul Food and implemented by the ministry in schools for various classes in order to address Western culture and globalization, which is “sneaking in to the younger generation through various means of communication.”
Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City. He has worked as a news producer for the BBC World Service, as well as contributed to Deutsche Welle, The Guardian, Al-Raya (Qatar) and other publications. Twitter:@iHaZeMi