Palestine: Suspected Islamic militants set fire to UN summer camp


Last night, 25 armed, masked men set fire to a U.N. summer camp at a beach in Nuseirat, Gaza, destroying inflatable pools and tents and roughing up a group of guards protecting the facility. It was the second attack on a U.N. recreation facility in just over a month. On May 23, a group of 30 masked, armed men set fire to another U.N. summer camp facility under construction in Gaza City. They also threatened to kill the U.N.'s top relief official in Gaza.

U.N. officials told Turtle Bay they don't know who attacked the recreation facilities but they suspect the vandals are Islamic extremists who object to programs that allow boys and girls to jointly swim, play volleyball, and learn about the arts, theater and other cultural activities.

"This is another example of the growing levels of extremism in Gaza," John Ging, the director of operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said in a statement. "The overwhelming use of UNRWA's Summer Games has once again obviously frustrated those that are intolerant."

The U.N. established the Summer Games program four years ago. The U.N.'s 1,200 camps provide a rare distraction from the hardships endured by more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees that live in the Gaza Strip. The program runs from June 12 through August 5. In last night's raid, the assailants tied up the guards, set fire to tables and easels, and slashed inflatable pools and tents.

In response, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement condemning the act of "vandalism," and saying such attacks are "an assault upon the well-being of Gaza's children." The statement called on the "de facto authorities" -- a reference to Hamas, the Islamic movement that came to power through elections in 2007 and whose legitimacy the U.N. does not fully recognize -- to "combat any incitement" against U.N. activities, and to ensure the safety of U.N. personnel and facilities.

Ging said that the U.N. will rebuild the Nuseirat summer camp immediately, and that the United Nations remains committed to continuing the summer program, "which is so important for the physical and psychological well-being of Gaza's children, so many of whom are stressed and traumatized by their circumstances and experiences."

Ging said the attacks on U.N. summer camps provided "further evidence, if that were needed, of the urgency to change the circumstances on the ground that are generating such extremism." Gaza has been the target of an Egyptian and Israeli blockade, which has banned many goods from entering the Palestinian territory. Facing mounting international pressure, Israel has agreed to ease the blockade by increasing the number of items that can be imported to Gaza.

Israel's deputy U.N. ambassador, Daniel Carmon, told Turtle Bay the camp attacks are "another reflection of what Israeli has been saying for years: that the territory is literally occupied by a terrorist organization, Hamas," that promotes and permits "extremism, terrorism, rockets over Israel and now, attacks against summer camps managed by the international community."

The U.N. summer camps compete with Hamas-run programs for the hearts of the more than 700,000 children under the age of 15 that live in the Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported. About 100,000 kids reportedly attend Hamas camps.

"Hamas camps teach an anti-Israeli doctrine and military-style marching, along with horseback riding, swimming and Islam," according to the U.S. news agency. "The U.N. says its hopes to help shield Gaza's children against the lure of militancy, a task that is getting harder in this impoverished territory."

U.N. officials say that Hamas has permitted the U.N. summer camps to function since coming to power in 2007. And Hamas's interior ministry condemned last night's attack, attributing it to "groups led by those with a misguided idea who want to distort the situation in Gaza." Hamas said it would investigate the attacks, and provide additional security at the U.N. camps.

By Colum Lynch Monday, June 28, 2010