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Young Gazans Brave Fear To Welcome Hamas Leader

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Young Gazans Brave Fear To Welcome Hamas Leader

Middle East

Young Gazans Brave Fear To Welcome Hamas Leader

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And across Egypt's northeast border, tens of thousands of people have turned out for a mass rally in the Gaza Strip today. It's to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hamas, which governs Gaza. The guest of honor is the leader of Hamas - Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal is making his first-ever trip to Gaza. His visit is seen as a political milestone in Hamas' attempt to try to gain wider acceptance in the region.

NPR's Philip Reeves is there, and filed this report about the reception he's receiving from the next generation of Palestinians.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Gaza is a small, very crowded strip of land that's full of kids. Roughly 1,700,000 people live here. About half are under the age of 18. In many countries, the very young have zero interest in politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

REEVES: After decades of conflict, Gaza's an intensely political place. It's young people are out in force to give a hero's welcome to Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS AND MOTORCADE)

REEVES: Meshaal and his convoy sweeps past. Eighteen year old Ghadeer Elewah has come with her 13-year-old cousin to catch a glimpse.

GHADEER ELEWAH: (Through Translator) We love Khaled Meshaal so much. We always see him on the TV. We see what he do and so, but because he is always supporting us, he is representing our issues, he's representing us.

REEVES: Meshaal's officially in Gaza to join celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of Hamas. He's also here to congratulate Gazans on what Hamas calls a victory. That's how Hamas views the latest bout of hostilities with Israel. People here are still clearing up after an eight-day missile offensive that Israel says it launched to stop Gazans firing rockets at their towns and cities. Living under missiles and rocket fire was terrifying for children on both sides.

In Gaza, at least 40 Palestinian kids were killed, and many, many more were injured. A lot of the youngsters today celebrating Meshaal's arrival are still suffering the aftereffects.

MIOH NEMOTO: Ninety percent of the children under the age of 18 are still afraid of hearing about the big loud explosion or sound in Gaza.

REEVES: That's Mioh Nemoto, child protection specialist with the U.N.'s children's organization, UNICEF. UNICEF is researching the effect of the missiles on Gaza's children, and has some preliminary findings.

NEMOTO: Two-thirds of children have been dreaming about the bad dream at night, and also, half of the children under the age of 12 have been experiencing bedwetting at night.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

REEVES: In a Gaza cafe, Ruba is chatting with friends. She's no fan of Hamas and has little time for all this victory talk. Ruba, who's fearful of giving her full name has three small children.

RUBA: (Through Translator) My kids, they got scared. They're frightened to sleep alone in their bedrooms. I feel the bombardment really affected them so much. If the door slams in the neighbor's house, they get really scared by it.

REEVES: Those natural sentiments in the past are not matched in evidence here today. This is the main event in Meshaal's visit to Gaza, a vast mass rally in the center of Gaza City. There are many young people here, some of them small children, and some of those small children are wearing what is now the national costume in Gaza, and that is the uniform of a soldier. They're carrying toy Kalashnikovs and in some cases even toy rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

When Meshaal arrived, he stepped out of a door cut in the base of an enormous plastic rocket that is the centerpiece of the stage. It's meant to symbolize the rockets that were fired recently out of Gaza at Israel.

The crowd listened quietly as Meshaal began to speak. On Israel, he took a hard-line position, underscoring Hamas' refusal to recognize it. There were cheers when he tackled the issue of Palestinian unity. Hamas and Fatah in the West Bank are divided by a bitter feud. It's time to reconcile, he said.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gaza.

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