GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Masked men trashed a U.N. summer camp Monday, tying up guards and slashing tents and an inflatable pool in the second such attack blamed on suspected extremists in just over a month — a sign of how, in Gaza, youth camp is not just about crafts and volleyball.
Rival day camps by the United Nations and Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers compete for the hearts of the next generation, the roughly 700,000 children under 15 who make up nearly half of the Gaza Strip's population.
Hamas camps teach an anti-Israeli doctrine and military-style marching, along with horseback riding, swimming and Islam. U.N. camps try to instill hope in a better future, a message wrapped in fun and games.
The U.N. says it hopes to help shield Gaza's children against the lure of militancy, a task that's getting harder in the impoverished territory. Educators say today's children are more vulnerable than the previous generation, having witnessed war with Israel last year, internal Palestinian fighting and the violent Hamas takeover in 2007, followed by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has virtually cut Gaza off from the outside world.
"Time is against us," warned local U.N. chief John Ging. "We are losing an entire generation."
In Monday's vandalism, two dozen masked men broke into a U.N. camp before dawn, while children were not present. They tied up four guards, then slashed and burned tents, toys and a plastic swimming pool.
Hamas police condemned the attack, and there was no claim of responsibility. Islamic extremists, including a Hamas legislator, have accused the U.N. in the past of corrupting Gaza's youths, objecting to camp activities such as folk dancing. A number of Islamic groups more militant than Hamas have carried out violence in the territory in the past few years.
For now, Hamas has largely avoided confrontation with Ging's U.N. Relief and Works Agency, well aware of how vital it is to the lives of impoverished Gazans. UNWRA runs schools, clinics and food centers for two-thirds of Gaza's 1.5 million people.
The U.N. agency stays clear of Hamas, internationally shunned as a terror group.
Hamas says 100,000 youngsters have signed up for its camps, to about 250,000 registered for the U.N. program. Both types of camps are free, and are arranged by age groups.