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Gaza's Factions Take Their Fight into the School Playgrounds
The armed men who assaulted eight-year-old Shahab al-Akhras on a street corner in Rafah covered their faces with balaclavas. Shahab, who is small for his age, was wearing the hata, the black-and-white checked scarf associated with Fatah - the party once led by the late Yasser Arafat.
The four men who pushed him into a corner and thrashed his hands on new year's day were wearing the uniforms of Hamas's Executive Force, these days Fatah's deadly rival. 'They took off my shoes and put them on the scarf and stamped on them,' he said. 'Then they told me to put out my arms in front of me and beat me with a stick. They said that if they saw me wearing the scarf again they would shoot me in the legs. I hate them!'
The internal struggle between the Islamist Hamas and the Fatah movement in Gaza - which Hamas thought it had won after three days of fighting last June - has resurfaced. While acts of violence continue to be committed by adults on both sides, the battleground now is over Gaza's children.
It is not simply that both parties are seeking to influence the new generation. In Gaza the children of Fatah families in particular, who saw fathers, brothers and uncles defeated by Hamas last June, are taking responsibility for the adult world. And challenging Hamas in the way their adults cannot - in plain view on the streets. The phenomenon is dividing schools, worrying teachers and psychologists, even members of the rival parties themselves. And it is frightening for those children who wish to remain outside of the struggle.
In the house of Fatima al-Najar, 57, the grandmother and Hamas activist who blew herself up and wounded five Israeli soldiers in 2006, her grandson Rafat, 13, rejects both parties. It does not make school easy. 'I don't want to belong to Hamas, or any party,' he said. 'But there is sometimes trouble at school between the parties. There are arguments and fights. And there is pressure from other students to join their side.
'The first day of term they'll hand you timetables they've made up to show how good their party is, or get your books or they ask you to sit with them. If you do that and the other side sees you sitting with people from the other party, then they won't talk to you again. It bothers me that politics is coming into school, which should be a place just for learning. But since the internal violence between Hamas and Fatah, it is happening so much more.'
Iyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychologist, believes the insistence among the children on identifying strongly with Hamas or Fatah is a symptom of the disintegration of Palestinian society in the past two years. 'A few days ago there was a bomb explosion near the Jawazat police station. I had a 15-year-old relative staying with me, a boy. He said he hoped members of Hamas were injured. He said: "I hope that some were killed!" I was shocked and said these were Palestinians. He replied that he didn't care, Hamas had done so much damage.
'There is a preoccupation among the children,' said Sarraj, 'about the issue of who is Hamas and who is Fatah. You go to homes and they ask you this. Even my two-year-old son is very preoccupied with this. He asks me: 'Are you Fatah or Hamas? I reply: "I'm Palestinian".'
But in the seven months since Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip and the routing of Fatah, that is no longer good enough for some of Gaza's children. While their fathers might risk putting up a Fatah flag on their houses, their children go further. They fly the yellow Fatah flag on their bicycles to taunt the gunmen of the Executive Force, on occasion riding in gangs through Hamas demonstrations. They wear the scarf and sometimes throw stones and insults, shouting 'Shia!' at Hamas members.
The defiance is not confined to boys. Last week The Observer encountered two teenage girls walking hand in hand in Gaza City. Both wore the colours of the Palestinian flag, tight jeans and caps rather than headscarves. Their necks were draped with the hata. They would not give their names, but when asked why they were dressed as they were, they shouted: 'Because we're Fatah.'
But if Fatah children are more visible on Gaza's streets it is only because those from Hamas are at the mosque or in the home, more strictly disciplined, particularly girls. When I ran into a group near the Unknown Soldier park in central Gaza City, they were being meekly organised for a demonstration against Israel's blockade of Gaza, arranged in white tunics in straight lines.
Two girls were led forward shyly to recite a few lines of broken English written on sheets of paper they held in their hands. 'There is a culture of talking politics in Palestinian society,' said Muntasir Bahja, 32, an English teacher at the Othmar Ibn Atan secondary school in Jabaliya.
'Both sides in the school try to organise their events and the others won't let them. First it was Fatah and an event to mark the founding of the movement. Then Hamas tried to mark the date of the martydom of Fatima al-Najar and brought in their stuff. Then the Fatah students would not let them speak, and shouted them down. So in the end the headmaster had to say "no more".
'I once took my primary school age daughter out to a park, and there was this other little girl there. My daughter came to me and said the other girl kept saying how Hamas was better than Fatah. I told her to go back and talk about school things and play. But the other girl just carried on... It is damaging everything, this hatred. What will happen when these five-year-olds become 18? All these children will remember is how Fatah and Hamas fought. That is why I am worried for the future.'
Not only Iyad Sarraj and Muntasir Bahja worry at what they are seeing happening to Gaza's divided children. Ghazi Hamid, a former spokesman for Hamas, and still closely associated with the movement, is also deeply troubled. 'I have never seen such splits in Palestinian society. Such hatred. And it really worries me. I have eight children and they talk about what goes on in school. The children abuse each other over what party they say they follow. Because people know who I am, I am recognised in the streets. Then they shout: "Shia! Shia!" It is shameful.'
But the playground fights are merely a backdrop to a more deadly violence, whose victims are children as well as adults. Last November a massive Fatah demonstration commemorating Arafat was attacked by Hamas supporters and many of those injured were children. The records of that day make for grim reading: Ibrahim Ahmad, 13, shot in the head; Islam Ahmad, 11, shot in the stomach; Muhanid Murshad, 12, his pelvis broken from a beating; Ahmad al-Masri, 12, shot in the arm; Muatmir Abu Touria, 15, broken jaw.
There are more. The case of Shahab al-Akhras is far from unique. Anecdotal evidence suggests teenagers are arrested and threatened, or their families are threatened. Ahmad Arawar, 16, was playing football in a sandy back alley. His story is typical. 'The Executive Force arrested me and beat me up last year at the Arafat memorial.' He was wearing the hata and trying to post a picture on a wall. His friend Faris Bakr, 12, said: 'I am Fatah because it is my origin. I'm not afraid of Hamas.'
Iyad Sarraj blames a wider issue than the simple question of competing politics - and factional fighting - for what is happening. For children who have witnessed the breakdown of family relationships or lost respect for fathers whom they have seen beaten or threatened - during Israel's occupation and the internal fighting - Sarraj believes the factions seem to offer protection, certainty and discipline. 'Hamas, for instance, functions as a clan,' he said. 'It is a new family. It offers protection to the children who follow it. It offers an identity.'
At his uncle's house in Rafah I asked Shahab al-Akhras if he would still wear his scarf. 'Of course I'll wear it. I wear it every day.' And if he saw the Hamas men who thrashed his hands again? 'I'll shout at them, "Shia!" And throw a stone,' he said defiantly.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008