Hamas is holding its annual summer camps to recruit child soldiers. It provided an explanation in English via a video on its "effort to prepare the youth" this year. It openly said it was preparing them for "training camps" named after the "sword of al-Quds battle," the name it gave to the war in May against Israel. It said it has been organizing the child-soldier training camps for five years.
The terrorist group says the youth need to be ready to make "sacrifices" which appears to be the language used to describe recruiting them to be killed. The speech by Hamas members said the camps include religious indoctrination and "security" training. Some 50,000 children have registered, according to The Jerusalem Post correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh.
During the recent war in Gaza, at least one of the children that authorities in Gaza said had been killed in the fighting was a Hamas member. A report at the time at the Post noted that teenagers undergo "summer camp training" and that militant and terror groups in Gaza have published photos of child soldiers they recruited who appear to be under 18.
A report published by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center – and confirmed by Joe Truzman, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy's Long War Journal website, who focuses on terrorist groups in Gaza and the rest of the Middle East – found that at least one the children on the list of those who were killed during last month's fighting, was a member of a terror group. The children killed in the May fighting received greater attention this year because The New York Times published a front-page story on them with photos of each one.
Once it became clear that Hamas had recruited child soldiers to fight in their wars, the questions about the fate of these children took on less urgency among reports that were seeking to highlight their deaths at the hands of Israel. In short, a child killed by an Israeli airstrike is important; a child recruited by Hamas or another terror group and whose life is put at risk receives less attention. There are no front-page stories about Hamas child soldiers who have been recruited.
According to UNICEF, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and development aid to children, the recruitment of children is a violation of international humanitarian law. Their website notes that "thousands of children are recruited and used in armed conflicts across the world. Often referred to as 'child soldiers,' these boys and girls suffer extensive forms of exploitation and abuse that are not fully captured by that term.
"Warring parties use children not only as fighters but as scouts, cooks, porters, guards, messengers and more. Many, especially girls, are also subjected to gender-based violence," the site says.
"Children become part of an armed force or group for various reasons. Some are abducted, threatened, coerced or manipulated by armed actors. Others are driven by poverty, compelled to generate income for their families. Still others associate themselves for survival or to protect their communities. No matter their involvement, the recruitment and use of children by armed forces is a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law."
A quick search of the UNICEF organization's website does not appear to show articles focusing on the recruitment of children in Gaza by terrorist organizations. They do, however, have articles on the 28 community-level centers in Gaza that they work with. They note that families often send children to the labor market and that many children are pushed into child marriage, with 29% of girls married before age 18.
"Another important part of the UNICEF project is changing practices that perpetuate ad hoc handling of abuse," the 2016 report says. "Traditionally, some people in the Gaza Strip tried to solve problems of sexual abuse by using informal justice mechanisms instead of bringing cases to court, or would try to justify domestic violence, for example, by using religion."
Five ministries and international and national organizations had signed on at the time for a plan to help protect children. It was not clear if this protection also focused on helping keep rifles out of their hands.
It's known that UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have done programming about youth and children being recruited for war in the past. When I was in Jordan in 2016 at a UN office, there were posters showing a child at a refugee camp looking in the mirror and seeing himself in uniform. The message was that he should not be recruited to fight in Syria.
There is an international day devoted to struggling against the use of child soldiers. In February, EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell and Special Representative Virginia Gamba, who is tasked with monitoring children and armed conflict, said the following: "Despite global commitments and efforts, children around the world continue to suffer from the consequences of conflicts and are still being used as expendable fuel of war."
According to the Office of the Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, tens of thousands of children are recruited and used in conflict. In 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding the involvement of children in armed conflict, to protect children from recruitment and use in hostilities; it entered force in 2002.
The protocol, to which Hamas is not a signatory, includes commitments for states not to recruit children under 18. It also notes that "armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a country should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities anyone under 18. Human rights law declares 18 as the minimum legal age for recruitment and use of children in hostilities.
"Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited under international humanitarian law – treaty and custom – and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court," according to the Special Representative's website. "Parties to conflict that recruit and use children are listed by the Secretary-General in the annexes of his annual report on children and armed conflict."
According to the section on Israel and Palestine, there is focus on children being harmed in the conflict. It notes "two incidents of children recruited by al-Qassam Brigades; continued allegations of attempts to recruit detained Palestinian children as informants; [and a] high number of children killed and maimed, including through the use of live ammunition during law enforcement operations."
It would appear that the first section relates to children recruited by Hamas, but it only notes two incidents, not the tens of thousands of children sent to militant summer camps.
The representative does recommend the "al-Qassam Brigades to cease the recruitment and use of children, and to abide by its domestic and international legal obligations; Palestinian armed groups to protect children, including by preventing them from being exposed to the risk of violence or by abstaining from instrumentalizing them for political purposes; all parties to engage with the United Nations, including at the country level, to end and prevent grave violations against children and to better protect children and respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law."
This would indicate that Hamas has been noted at least once for its recruitment, although the name "Hamas" is hidden behind the "Qassam Brigades," which is its "armed" unit. However, when referring to countries, the UN doesn't blame the army for recruitment, but the country itself. It is unclear why, when it comes to Hamas, only the armed unit is mentioned.
Other generalized statements on the website of the representative can be found relating to calling on all sides to protect children. There was a push last year to raise awareness about the recruitment of child soldiers by Palestinian groups. However, there does not appear to be much emphasis on the issue this year, and Hamas and other terrorist group training camps appear to come and go as if they are a normal activity, as opposed to an invitation to recruit children for war. This appears to be a violation of international law.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.