By DIAA HADID
Associated Press Writer
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Youths leaped through fiery hoops as gunfire echoed in an action-packed graduation ceremony for a Hamas summer camp aimed at preparing the youngsters for battle against Israel.
About 200 teens dressed in the uniforms of the Hamas military wing showed off their new skills Sunday in a sandy, ramshackle stadium in the eastern Shejaiyeh area of Gaza City. The goal of the Hamas camp was clear _ train the youth in military tactics and impart the militant Islamic ideology that has characterized Hamas.
A truce that began June 19, halting Palestinian rocket barrages and Israeli reprisal raids, provided the calm for the camp to proceed unhindered.
Some of the drills in the final event were the same as those seen at graduation ceremonies for Palestinian police and security forces.
The youths leaped through hoops set on fire and summersaulted over the backs of others as older Hamas militants fired rifles. Random small bombs were also detonated in the sandy field.
An older youth lay on the ground as a minivan drove over him _ the tire rolling over the youth's body to cheers and gasps by hundreds of onlookers. He later smashed concrete plates set on fire with a quick snap of his hand. Other youths also smashed concrete blocks piled on the youth's body, as organizers set a small fire nearby, increasing the pressure.
A black-suited trio sung strident pro-Hamas music as the youths backflipped off scaffolding into a pool of water below, held onto a rope to glide across a metal cable fixed above the ground, and leaped off wooden bars, a few landing in a smoldering fire pit lit below them _ all while bearded gunmen fired their assault rifles in the air and around the youths' feet.
They later lined up breathing heavily and standing still as khaki-clad camp leaders walked sternly among them.
"They are tomorrow's leaders!" thundered Khalil Hayyeh, a senior Hamas leader.
Last summer Hamas expelled its Fatah rivals and was busy with setting up its government in the coastal territory instead of running summer camps like this one. Now the truce has provided quiet.
"There's no doubt that the stability and calm has created a good atmosphere that has allowed us to make more summer camps, and oversee the youths," said Ismail Ridwan in a telephone interview to The Associated Press.
The Hamas legislator said when he was a child, Hamas was not able to hold camps because of Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip. Israel pulled out in 2005 but still controls Gaza's borders and has imposed a blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Israel has charged that the Hamas camps teach the youths to hate the Jewish state. Hamas is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. "That has nothing to do with the camps, the hatred of Israel comes from (Israel's) occupation, which burdens our hearts," Ridwan said.