GAZA CITY — Judging by the orderly rows of hundreds of young wannabes lined up in crisp military fashion at their graduation ceremony here Thursday, 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, ages 15 to 21, mustered at a dozen camps over the past week in the Gaza Strip to climb ropes, practice 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 how to perform first aid and throw a grenade. They watched — but did not touch — as instructors showed them the basics of improvised explosive devices.
For the first time, the Hamas military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, hosted the Gaza teens and young men 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 lots of sports, religion and playtime on the beach.
These winter camps were 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” by the attendees.
Qassam commanders allowed a Washington Post reporter to enter two camps, but they did not let the reporter stay more than 30 minutes or take photographs until Thursday’s more-scripted graduation.
Military commanders for Hamas, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, said the camps were designed to boost the Palestinian 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 organized 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 have no trouble recruiting more troops.
“There is no shortage of manpower in Gaza,” said one Israeli officer selected to speak to the foreign news 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 said 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 neighbors 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 teens 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.”
Abu Hamza 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.”
He saluted his comrades in Lebanon. “We are sending the greetings to the resistance in South Lebanon, especially to Hezbollah that insulted the enemy by its operation yesterday.”
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.