Judging by the hundreds of young men lined up in crisp military fashion at their graduation ceremony, the armed wing of the Islamist movement Hamas will have plenty of eager recruits this year.
More than 17,000 fresh-faced teenagers and young men, aged 15 to 21, mustered at a dozen camps over the past week in the Gaza Strip to climb ropes, practise close-order drills and fire Kalashnikov rifles, all of them pledging to defend the coastal enclave and ready to fight the next war against their Zionist enemies.
They also learned first aid and how to throw a grenade. They watched – but did not touch – as instructors demonstrated the basics of improvised explosive devices.
For the first time, the Hamas military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, hosted the Gaza recruits for a week of training in the martial arts at previously off-limits Qassam bases.
In the past, the military-style camps have been run by Hamas’s political wing, and during the summer sessions, the camps included sports, religion and playtime on the beach.
Hamas in pictures
Hamas in pictures
1/10 December 2014
Hamas top leader in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya (L), spokesman for the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, Abu Obaida and Mussa Abu Marzuq (R) greet supporters during a parade marking the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movements creation in Gaza City
2/10 December 2014
Hamas gunmen display their military skills during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the militant group
3/10 December 2014
Masked members parade in a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Hamas militant group
4/10 December 2014
Palestinian militants from the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, carry mock-rockets as they march during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movements creation, at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Central Gaza
5/10 November 2014
Palestinian young members of the Hamas' Popular Army parade during a graduation ceremony in Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip
6/10 November 2014
Members of Hamas security forces march during their graduation ceremony at the fisherman's port in Gaza City
7/10 August 2014
Abu Abida (3L), spokesman for the armed wing of the Hamas speaks during a Hamas militants parade in Shejaiya
8/10 August 2014
A Palestinian man kisses a Hamas militant sniper during a parade by Hamas militants in Shejaiya
9/10 August 2014
Palestinian militants from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades (L), Hamas' armed wing, attend a rally in Gaza City, following a deal hailed by Israel and the Islamist movement as 'victory' in the 50-day war
10/10 August 2014
Palestinian mourners gather during the funeral of three senior Hamas commanders in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Israeli warplanes killed three top Hamas commanders in southern Gaza inflicting a heavy blow on the movement's armed wing after failing to kill its top military chief
These winter camps were, however, different – more serious, more martial. The attendees were older and the trainers were Qassam commanders dressed in khaki camouflage who barked orders like drill sergeants, answered by shouts of “Allahu akbar”.
Military commanders for Hamas, which has been branded a terrorist organisation by the United States and Israel, said the camps were designed to boost the resistance and to give Gaza’s frustrated and unemployed youths a way to blow off steam – and shoot some guns.
A Qassam officer who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mujahed said the camps were not organised to recruit new cadres to the militia, although he conceded that candidates were chosen from the ranks. “We have more than enough recruits. Too many,” he said. “The camps are designed to answer the demands of the youth – to do something.”
Critics of Hamas said the camps were designed to bolster the group’s popularity and distract residents from the grim conditions of Gaza: the unpaid salaries, the lack of reconstruction, the closures of the strip to trade and travel.
According to initial estimates by Israeli and Palestinian groups, about 1,000 Gaza combatants may have died in the 50-day summer war between Hamas and Israel, which has the best-equipped army in the Middle East. Analysts estimate that al-Qassam, the largest and best-equipped of the half-dozen militias in Gaza, has 20,000 or 25,000 fighters in its ranks.
The heavy losses of the summer do not appear to have dimmed the zeal of Gaza’s young men, who said they were ready to fight the Jewish state again. Hamas and Israel have fought three wars in the past six years, and the Hamas movement remains in control in the Gaza Strip.
Ahmad Ismail, 16, dressed in a black Qassam T-shirt, said after his graduation: “I have received training on using weapons, especially rifles, and climbing on ropes, marching, shooting, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. We also had practical training and got to shoot the Kalashnikovs.”
He said: “I wish I could join Qassam Brigades now. I want to fight Israel. I want to kick them out of our land. I am ready now.”
Israeli military intelligence officers say the Hamas military wing will easily recruit more troops. “There is no shortage of manpower in Gaza,” said one Israeli officer selected to speak to the foreign media. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Israeli military protocol.
The Israeli officer said Hamas was “assembling new rockets as fast as they can”. He said it didn’t matter if longer-range rockets and their propellants might not be available because the military-led government in Egypt has closed down most of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza.
“Hamas is making plenty of rockets,” he said. Hundreds a week, thousands a month, he added, and the militias in the strip would be fully armed and staffed in a few months.
“The decision to go to war is a political one for Hamas,” he said. “On the military side, they’re ready to go today.”
Ibrahim Shinbari, 15, said: “I joined the camp because I want to know how to confront the Jews when they invade our land. We have to learn how to use the gun. I want to retaliate for my friends and neighbours who were killed by Jews.”
One of his friends at the camp said: “Every day we have someone from Hamas giving us a lesson on jihad and the importance of it. We have videos on the military operations that were done by Hamas in the last war.”
He said he was ready to join as soon as the brigades would have him. “They are the most powerful army in Palestine,” he said. “They taught the Jews a hard lesson not to come back to Gaza.”
The teenagers were formed into squads and companies. They learned to march in close order, to count off their steps. Some squads were ordered to take a knee and watch a Qassam officer break down and reassemble a Kalashnikov rifle. Other groups were doing push-ups. The camp was hidden from the street by high sand berms but open to the skies.
A Qassam fighter in camouflage and a cap said: “We don’t care what the Israeli satellites can see,” and pointed in the air.
“We’re trying to teach the basics,” said a trainer named Abu Hamza. “One week, nothing more, not too hard.”
He said that on the first day, the camps sent home hundreds of boys who were 12 or 13 years old. “They were standing on their tiptoes trying to get in. We told them come back next year. They went home crying.”
The trainer said that with more than 2,100 Palestinians killed in the summer war with Israel. “We have plenty who want to join. They want to retaliate. They want revenge. Especially those who lost a family member.”
The graduation ceremony in Gaza City was attended by the top Hamas official in the enclave, Ismail Haniyeh. A senior Qassam commander, Khalil Haiyah, told the audience that even though his militia “is busy getting ready for the next battle and restoring its power”, the officers thought it important to train the “next generation as we prepare for Jerusalem, the West Bank and Palestine”.
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