Ramallah, March 6, 2017—Gaza’s Futuwwa program, an “awareness and fitness program” in government-run schools, no longer includes the controversial military-style drills that provoked international criticism and raised concerns about child recruitment. A Ministry of Education (MOE) official and a principal told Defence for Children International - Palestine components of the program involving children carrying weapon replicas and donning uniforms had been suspended.
In its current form, the Futuwwa program is a civic and health program only, DCIP sources said. Its goals are to promote positive decision-making, physical activity, and patriotism in high-school boys.
Program leaders assigned to each school by the Ministry of Interior (MOI) lead children through warm-up exercises and the Palestinian national anthem during morning queues. Once or twice a month, the program leaders also teach a lesson on Palestinian history, cooperation, personal development and cultural pride.
Although it takes place during school hours, participation is now optional and there are no grades. Black uniforms, which were used in the past during the military-style drills, have also been dropped. There is talk of expanding the program to girls.
The Futuwwa, or youth, program takes its name from a long tradition of young men’s associations or guilds around shared religious, craftsmanship, or military ideals, dating back to at least the sixteenth century.
Since its first presence in Gaza in the late 1940s, under Egyptian administration, Futuwwa clubs or programs have undergone multiple iterations. Former President Yasser Arafat sanctioned the continuation of the program in 1967, officially folding it into the national curriculum in 1994.
After some years of dormancy, the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip relaunched the program in 2012. During that academic year, parents reported that children’s participation had become compulsory and some children received grades.
Recent changes to the program stemmed, in part, from a slew of parent complaints in 2012, as a MOE official who wished to remain anonymous explained.
When a number of parents demanded to unenroll their children in the program,“school principals were instructed not to force students into taking part in the program, and that any participation should be approved by students and their families,” the MOE official said.
Pressure continued to mount as the Futuwwa program drew international criticism. In addition to objections over the use of weapons replicas in schools, there were fears that the program funnelled children into summer and winter camps administered by Palestinian armed groups.
“We have no authority over what goes on outside of school time,” the MOE official told DCIP. He denied that Futuwwa program leaders encourage children to enroll in the summer or winter camps. Registration for the camps, he said, mostly happens during school breaks or through mosques.
A DCIP 2014 investigation found there were strong links between the school-based Futuwwa program and the highly attended winter camps hosted by Palestinian armed groups, like al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, which took place off school premises.
The al-Qassam Brigades winter camp had around 5,000 child participants in its first year, January 2013. Enrollment more than doubled the second year, with 13,000 participants from 49 public schools across the Gaza Strip, according to DCIP’s investigation.The camps were officially open to boys between the age of 15 and 17.
Summer camps also attracted high enrollments. In 2015, at least 24,000 Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, enrolled in summer camps organized by various Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, according to DCIP evidence.
Children in the summer camps underwent physical training that included military marching and weapons handling using replica firearms. In rare instances, children used live bullets for target practice. The physical training occurred on armed groups’ military bases, near the Israeli border.
“Officially, there is no relationship whatsoever between the Futuwwa program at schools and the summer camps organized by political parties,” a school principal told DCIP last year.
However, since all Futuwwa program leaders are appointed by officials in the MOI — which is run by the Hamas-led government — and some program leaders also work in the camps organized by the Hamas-affiliated armed group, al-Qassam Brigades, there appears to be an indirect influence that may encourage students to enroll in the camps, increasing their vulnerability to future recruitment.
This indirect influence remains present today, as one principal acknowledged. “It is possible that Futuwwa program leaders do that [encourage camp enrollment], but without involving us directly. It could happen also through student unions, such as the Islamic Bloc in high schools by inviting fellow students to participate in camps organized by Palestinian factions outside of the term-time.”
Last summer, the youth camp organized by Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian armed group, did not involve the use of live weapons or take place on military training sites, according to Islamic Jihad spokesperson Dawoud Shihab. The 3,000 boys who attended, did, however, engage in physical exercises such as crawling and jumping. They also learned how to swim and ride horses.
Islamic Jihad’s girls camp schedule included domestic arts, volleyball, and crisis training, such as handling power outages and UXO. Approximately 2,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 16 attended.
In their current form, neither the Futuwwa program nor the summer and winter camps appear to constitute child recruitment under international standards, though they both raise concerns because they may act as vehicles that facilitate future recruitment.
According to the Paris Principles and Guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups, child recruitment refers to the use or recruitment of any person under the age of 18 by an armed force or group, in any capacity. It includes both direct roles in armed combat and indirect roles, such as cook or informant. International law prohibits all forms of child recruitment and use in armed conflict.
At this time, DCIP has found no evidence that children are being used or recruited by Palestinian armed groups for any role in armed conflict, in the context of these programs.
However, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza—fueled by Israel’s nearly ten-year blockade and frequent military strikes—keeps children vulnerable to recruitment and other forms of child labor.
As scholar Alexandre J. Vautravers writes, “For many young people in precarious situations, in countries without perceptible prospects of personal development and economic or employment security, joining armed groups can be seen as a form of group and individual security.”