July/August 2000

Palestinian Summer Camp Offers the Games of War

"Young Palestinians demonstrate their ability to handle firearms by assembling Kalashnikov rifles. In the summer camps around Nablus, the mood is a throwback to an earlier era in Palestinian-Israeli relations."
It is summer camp time for 25,000 Palestinian teenagers, and strikingly unusual camps they are, too. As run by the men who handle psychological warfare for Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, they allow no horsing around in the dorm, no fun-in-the-sun by a cool clear lake, no rousing sing-alongs beside a roaring campfire.

Instead, there is the chance to stage a mock kidnapping of an Israeli leader by masked Palestinian commandos, ending with the Israeli's bodyguards sprawled dead on the ground. Next, there is the mock attack on an Israeli military post, ending with a sentry being grabbed by the neck and fatally stabbed. Finally, there is the opportunity to excel in stripping and reassembling a real Kalashnikov rifle.

In the summer of the latest Camp David talks, a summer that was supposed to produce a final peace settlement between Israel and its Palestinian adversaries, the Palestinians' idea of a teenage boys' camp is a reminder of how deep old enmities run. At 90 two- and three-week camps on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, youths from towns and villages already ceded to Israel by Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority are learning the arts of kidnapping, ambushing and using assault weapons.

"As President Arafat says, this is the generation that will plant the Palestinian flag on the walls of Jerusalem," said Dr. Wajieh Affouneh, a 49-year-old dental school graduate who joined Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization in a refugee camp. In the 1970's and 80's, he participated, according to other aides, in some of the operations that made the Palestinian cause synonymous with attacks on Israeli and other targets. Dr. Affouneh is now a top man in the "political guidance" department of Mr. Arafat's National Security Forces, the armed police unit permitted under the Oslo accords.

In the camps around this biblical town 35 miles north of Jerusalem, the mood is a throwback to the days before Mr. Arafat joined Israeli leaders in the peacemaking effort that faltered last week at Camp David, mainly over the future of Jerusalem.

Since the current cycle of talks began in Oslo in 1993, both sides have made generous use of the tactics of bluff and threat, and have still made impressive strides toward peace. But the display today in the yard of what was once a notorious Israeli prison seemed more than old-time propaganda, even if there was an element of that. What the youths and their mentors had prepared for a graduation parade on Thursday appeared to a visitor to be steeped more in the Palestinian mind-set of the 1970's than the conciliatory postures of today.

In the mock kidnapping, an Israeli official walked across the old prison yard surrounded by eagle-eyed security men. Suddenly a reporter approached with a tape recorder. The target stopped, only to be grabbed by the reporter, now flourishing an imitation pistol. As the target was dragged off, other mock kidnappers shot seven of the bodyguards dead.

For 1,000 Palestinian youngsters standing in neatly ordered platoons, cheering, the exercise seemed like ripping good stuff.

Afterward, many predicted that their generation would someday take up arms against Israel over Jerusalem. At indoctrination sessions in the camps, the youths have been told that Mr. Arafat, at Camp David, rejected American proposals that would have given the Palestinian Authority a foothold in parts of Jerusalem, demanding instead that Israel surrender the entire eastern half of the city it seized in 1967.

Fikri Fouad, a 15-year-old village boy, said Palestinians had learned during the Oslo peace effort to live with a split view of Israelis -- "as people that we can make peace with, but still our enemies, too." He added: "If we can get Jerusalem without weapons, it is better. But if there is a need to liberate Jerusalem with weapons, we will be ready for that."

Other youths offered opinions that would be grist for the mill of Israeli politicians like Ariel Sharon, the hawkish former general who has accused Prime Minister Ehud Barak of endangering Israel with his acceptance of American proposals on Jerusalem. At a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Sharon said any Palestinian foothold in the city would encourage Mr. Arafat to press the "real" Palestinian goal of recovering Tel Aviv and Haifa, along with the rest of Israel.

Suleiman Nubaim, 16, said the Camp David talks had given new relevance to what he and his friends had been taught about the exploits of the freedom fighters, or "fedayeen," the name taken by Palestinian guerrillas of the pre-Oslo period. Like many youths, he said he wanted to join the Palestinian forces.

"I want my country to be free," he said. "It's been my dream since I was a small boy." Games?

Asked how he defined Palestinian freedom, he said it included having Jerusalem, and then the rest of Israel. "As long as Israel occupies any part of our land, in Tel Aviv or Jaffa or Haifa," he said, "we have not liberated our homeland."

Although the camps have been run for five years with some weapons training, it is only this summer that they have caused noticeable controversy in Israel. Since Camp David, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Army chief of staff, has cited the training in the summer camps as evidence of the risks of a new Palestinian upheaval. Israeli officials have said security has been tightened all across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, especially near the 145 Jewish settlements that have been the cause of much Palestinian ire.

Mr. Affouneh, the Arafat aide who oversees the Nablus camps, said weapons training was only a small part of a wider program that included inculcating the benefits of discipline and physical fitness, and teaching the youths about the history of Palestine before and since 1948, including the armed struggle led by Mr. Arafat. "We joined the Palestinian national movement when we were their age," he said, referring to the men who now lead the Palestinian Authority, "and we are creating a continuum between our generation and theirs."

In any case, he said, weapons used in the camps -- judging by the graduation rehearsal, American-made Smith & Wesson revolvers in addition to the Kalashnikovs -- were "legitimate" under the Oslo accords.

These allowed Mr. Arafat to establish an armed police force but denied him the right to acquire heavy weapons. In practice, even Palestinian officials admit that the Russian mafia, with the foothold it has gained in Israeli life, is smuggling an enormous number of rifles and other small arms into Palestinian-controlled areas.

Dr. Affouneh said Israeli alarm at the weapons training was hypocritical, since Israel was one of the world's most heavily-armed countries. "Israel is a country with nuclear weapons, whereas we have no air force, no tanks, and no arms industry," he said.

"All we have is a small number of rifles. And even today, just a few miles from here, Jewish settlers are being encouraged by the Israeli government to build up their arms stockpiles. Tell me, who are the victims, and who are the victimizers?"

Other officials noted that recent Israeli news reports had identified a hitherto-secret Israeli Army training camp where troops rehearse storming a mock Palestinian village being used as a base for attacks on Israelis. What's good for Israel, the Palestinians seemed to be saying, is good for Palestinians.

Dr. Affouneh drew a closer parallel, saying that a part of the Zionist movement that survived the transition to Israeli statehood was Gdudei Noar, or Gadna, a corps that introduces tens of thousands of Israeli teenagers to army life. In recent years, the organization has shifted from weapons familiarity to sports, physical fitness and camping, but Dr. Affouneh said the Palestinian summer camps were essentially the same.

"We hope that we will achieve our rights through negotiations, so that summer camps like these will cease to exist," he said. "There is nothing we want more than a full and genuine peace, including Jerusalem, which would allow us to end the weapons-training and concentrate instead on teaching our young people about computers, and swimming and other recreations. That has always been our hope."

© New York Times 2000

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