On March 17-19, 2013, an international conference on "Youth and the Palestinian Cause in Light of the Arab Spring" was held in Gaza, sponsored by Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya. The conference was organized by the "Islamic Bloc," which started out as Hamas's student organization, active at Gaza colleges and universities, but which over the years has extended its activity to schools, from the high school level down through the elementary school level. The Islamic Bloc also has a presence in the West Bank, but on a much smaller scale, and only among college students.
The Islamic Bloc coordinates and cooperates with Hamas and its administration in the Gaza Strip, and offers a variety of educational, cultural, social and sports activities for young people. Through these activities, its activists inculcate Hamas's ideology and also give participants physical and weapons training to prepare them for resistance actions. The organization has an active website, and its various branches have Facebook pages that report on their activities in different parts of the Strip and in different educational facilities, attesting to their widespread presence in educational institutions throughout Gaza.
This document reviews the Islamic Bloc's activities in the Gaza Strip, sponsored by the Hamas government, and its more limited activities in the West Bank, as well as its activity vis-à-vis Arab, Islamic and Western elements.
Hamas Officials: The Islamic Bloc – An Inseparable Part Of Hamas's Strategy
The Islamic Bloc website clarifies its relationship with Hamas: "The Islamic Bloc is a Palestinian student organization that adopts the total Islamic perspective on education, unions, society, culture and sports. It is an ideological extension of the Islamic movement in Palestine [i.e. Hamas], and endorses this movement's views in all domains of life: politics, society, culture, economics, etc. It has an independent organizational framework, because Hamas is a political jihadi organization... whereas [the Islamic Bloc] is a union..."
Main page of the Islamic Bloc website: "With knowledge we build, and with morality we ascend"
Members of Hamas and the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades have been active in the Islamic Bloc since the 1980s, including Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya and Al-Qassam founding member Yahya 'Ayyash.
Hamas officials have praised the Islamic Bloc's activity in schools and confirmed its affiliation with the movement. At a ceremony held by Haniya on March 4, 2013 celebrating the Islamic Bloc's activity in the Gaza Strip, he praised its efforts in all fields and its substantial role in working with Palestinian youths in schools, universities and colleges, stressing that the Hamas government spares no effort in supporting education and students "in order to shape an intelligent, original, and outstanding generation that can elevate the homeland and liberate Palestine from the defilement of the occupation."
Islamic Bloc representatives present Haniya with a map of Palestine during the ceremony
During a visit by an Islamic Bloc delegation to the home of Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, the latter praised the Bloc for its major role in spreading da'wa and assisting students, and stated that it was an inseparable part of Hamas's strategic plan.
Islamic Bloc delegation with Mahmoud Al-Zahhar (second from right)
The political support of Hamas is also expressed in an ad (see below) that appeared on the Facebook page of the Islamic Bloc chapter in the eastern Gaza Strip, which called for voting for Haniya in presidential elections and for Hamas in legislative council elections.
"Isma'il Haniya President Of Palestine"; "Together We Shall Support The Hamas List In The Presidential And PLC elections"
The Islamic Bloc offers activities for women and girls, and devotes a website and Facebook page to these activities. In December 2012, the women's branch of the Islamic Bloc was visited by Amal Al-Burini, the wife of Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mash'al, who arrived with her husband for an historic visit in Gaza.
Amal Al-Burini visits the women's branch of the Islamic Bloc
Islamic Bloc: Indoctrination To Jihad And Armed Struggle
The Islamic Bloc also supports the armed struggle of Hamas's militant wing, the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades. This is reflected, for example, in an article on the Islamic Bloc's website devoted to Sheikh 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam, after whom the brigades are named, which states: "Decades after the mujahid Sheikh 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam sacrificed his life on the blessed soil of Palestine, we find that the correct proposal regarding the [Palestinian] cause is the one proposed and carried out by 'Izz Al-Din: [namely the idea of] Islam and armed struggle... [Today] we see that the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades are the ones bearing the burden of the conflict, and that 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam's way is the way chosen by the sons of Palestine: [namely the way of] Islam, revolution, and armed struggle – while many [others] have fallen into the quagmire of coexistence with the Jews."
An image on the Facebook page of the Islamic Bloc in the eastern Gaza Strip, captioned "The 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades," depicts an Islamic conquest of the Al-Aqsa mosque in a military action. Above the caption is the Al-Qassam Brigades' symbol.
Yazid Baker, the Islamic Bloc's middle-school supervisor in the western Gaza Strip, said that the organization seeks to plant the spirit of jihad and perseverance in the souls of pupils, so that they become the generation that will liberate the prisoners and all the holy lands and places.
Following Israel's November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the Islamic Bloc held celebrations in high schools and middle schools in the southern Gaza Strip, under the heading: "The Occupier Was Defeated And The Resistance Was Victorious," as shown in the following photo:
From the Facebook page of the Islamic Bloc in the southern Gaza Strip. The middle sign reads: "The Occupier Was Defeated And The Resistance Was Victorious," and features the symbols of Hamas and of the Al-Qassam Brigades
In March 2012, the Islamic Bloc held activities in Gaza schools marking the anniversary of the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Ahead of these activities, Muhammad Aslim, an Islamic Bloc activist in the eastern Gaza Strip, said that Hamas officials would use the occasion to speak of Yassin's efforts "to revive the Islamic ummah and educate the youth in the way of Islam – [a way that] has enabled [the Palestinians] to level the playing field in their struggle with the Zionist occupation." After the activities ended, the Islamic Bloc high school supervisor in the western Gaza Strip, Sa'id Al-Laqta, said that speakers at the ceremonies had expanded on Yassin's role in establishing "jihadist groups to fight the occupation," and that the organization had distributed flyers describing Yassin's life, "which was full of giving, jihad, calls to Allah, and support for the Palestinian cause."
Firearms Training In Middle Schools
As part of its activities in the spirit of Hamas in Gaza schools, the Islamic Bloc holds a sports competition in middle schools called "The Strongest," which includes training and competitions in four fields: shooting, sports commentary, arm wrestling, and cycling. The Facebook page for the Islamic Bloc in the western Gaza Strip stated on February 23, 2013 that the initial tryouts for the competition had been attended by more than 3,000 pupils from various schools, and that further tryouts would be held among the regional winners. The posting was accompanied by photos showing pupils learning how to fire rifles.
The Islamic Bloc in the eastern Gaza Strip clarified on its Facebook page that training with hunting rifles (see pictures below) would be the default option until the opening of the first military school in the Gaza Strip next year.
"Welcome, students participating in the tryouts for the sports creativity project – Shooting event."
A teacher participating in firearms training
In addition to the activities it organizes, the Islamic Bloc also supports the Futuwwa program: a military training program held by the Hamas authorities in Gaza Strip high schools that started in the current academic year. This support is reflected by visits held by Bloc representatives to special Futuwwa camps last January. During one visit, the coordinator of the Islamic Bloc in the Rafah district, Ibrahim Abu Al-Nour, said that "the purpose of the Futuwwa camps is to inculcate the values of power and honor in the souls of students, in preparation for removing the usurping occupation from the land of Palestine."
Furthermore, in an Islamic Bloc ceremony at the Jaffa school in the Gaza Strip, various Futuwwa activities were displayed, as shown the following photos posted on the Facebook page of the Islamic Bloc in the eastern Gaza Strip:
Photos from a Futuwwa demonstration at an Islamic Bloc ceremony at the Jaffa school
Activity In The Arab, Islamic And International Arenas
Alongside activity among Palestinian youth, the Islamic Bloc also acts in the wider Arab and Islamic arena, and even in among Western elements. It receives delegations to the Gaza Strip, sends delegates to conferences outside the Palestinian territories, and meets with Islamic leaders.
Thus, for example, Islamic Bloc representatives recently met with delegations from Egypt, Mauritania, Kuwait, and Yemen that visited the Gaza Strip, and also with an interfaith delegation from Norway.
In late December 2012, the Islamic Bloc attended two events outside the Palestinian territories. One was the first conference of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth in Syria, which took place in Istanbul with the participation of some 350 youths. It was also attended by Syrian Muslim Brotherhood officials, alongside representatives of various organizations and officials from several Islamic countries, including Hamas MP Mushir Al-Masri, members of the Tunisian ruling Al-Nahda Party, and representatives of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood student organization.  According to a report on the Islamic Bloc's website and the Hamas paper Al-Risala, the Islamic Bloc was represented by Mahmoud Al-Shawish, the middle school supervisor in the Gaza Strip. The report stated further that "the Islamic Bloc makes an effort to attend many external conferences, in order to exchange information and elevate the level of various youth and student activities, and in order to offer its experience... to the Arab and Islamic world."
The second event was the "Arab Youth Conference For Liberation And Dignity" in Tunisia, organized by the Palestinian Youth Movement to bring together all the pro-Palestinian efforts of Arab youths in Arab and European countries. The conference was attended by all Palestinian factions and included over 90 Arab youths from Arab and European countries. The Islamic Bloc's representative, Wisam Al-Qutati, said that participants discussed activity among youth in various countries in order to imbue them with the spirit of the complete liberation of Palestine, the protection of Palestine's historic and Islamic identity, and assistance to the Palestinian refugees abroad. In addition to attending the conference, Al-Qutati visited the leader of the Al-Nahda Party, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, and the Tunisian presidential palace, where he met with the head of the president's office.
In February 2012, Islamic Bloc head Hani Muqbil, along with other officials from student organizations in the Gaza Strip, attended meetings in Tunisia meant to establish the student bloc of the Al-Nahda Party in the country.
In addition, the Islamic Bloc in Gaza recently hosted a multi-religious delegation for interfaith dialogue from Norway. Bloc officials stressed the tolerance of Islam and the respect it pays to all monotheistic religions, and explained that the hostility towards the Jews resulted from the usurpation of the Arab and Palestinian lands and holy sites, and that the Jews had enjoyed their rights only under the rule of the Islamic state. An unnamed delegate member described as "the coordinator of Muslim imams in Norway" thanked the Islamic Bloc for its activity and efforts to serve students and society, and stressed the need for steady contact in order to create a society characterized by love, affection, and stability.
The Norwegian delegation
Today, the Islamic Bloc has moved beyond sending delegates to external conferences, and apparently aspires to become a key organizer of Arab and Islamic youth activity promoting the Palestinian cause. As part of these efforts, on March 17-19, 2013 it held its first international conference, titled "Youth and the Palestinian Cause in Light of the Arab Spring." The conference was sponsored by Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya, and was attended by prominent Egyptian cleric Safwat Hegazi, by representatives of 30 student and youth organizations from Arab and Islamic countries, by Arab and Muslim officials, and by hundreds of students and youths from the Gaza Strip. The head of the conference's preparatory committee, Nidal 'Id, said on January 29, 2013, the day the conference was announced, that it would mark the anniversary of the deaths of Ahmed Yassin and 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Rantisi, and celebrate Hamas' victory in the 2006 elections and in the two recent wars in Gaza, and the successful prisoner exchange.
The Facebook page opened for the conference posted a list of its goals, which included strengthening the spirit of affiliation with Islam and the ummah; deepening the spirit of jihad as a tool to liberate occupied land; laying down foundations for successful political dialogue combining tradition and modernity; examining the shari'a perspective on dealing with the occupier; and sowing the spirit of erudition in the hearts of the youth.
The first international conference of the Islamic Bloc in Gaza.
Islamic Bloc head Hani Muqbil said at the conference that the organization had spared no effort in preparing it, with the aim of mobilizing the Arab youth for the sake of the Palestinian cause, and praised the Palestinian government [in Gaza] for sponsoring the conference and for bringing stability and freedoms to Gaza. He added that since its establishment, the Islamic Bloc had always supported the causes of resistance and jihad, which are the most prominent principles to which the Palestinian people and youth adhere. He stated further that the spirit of resistance is embodied by the young people, who managed to shell Tel Aviv by developing the [Palestinian] weapons and force, thereby undermining the Zionist entity and harming its defeated army. Palestine will soon be liberated by these Muslim Palestinian youths, he said, who believe in their religion and their just cause, and in restoring their rights that have been usurped by the occupier.
Egyptian cleric Safwat Hegazi said that the Arab peoples had no choice but to "either pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque or else die at its threshold," stressing that there would be no peace and no surrender until Palestine was liberated from the river to the sea. He added that the Arab revolutions meant that the words of Allah's Messenger (i.e. the Prophet Muhammad) would soon come to pass: a just Islamic Caliphate would be established with Jerusalem as its capital, and a decisive battle would be fought against the Jews that would send them scurrying to seek shelter behind Gharqad trees. Hegazi urged the Palestinian people and Haniya not to lay down their guns until all the Palestinian lands are liberated and the Israeli occupation ends.
According to the conference's Facebook page, the participating delegations also visited the homes of Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, of the martyr Ahmad Yassin, and of the late Hamas MP Umm Nidal Farahat (known as the "Khansa of Palestine"), who was the mother of three sons killed in operations against Israel.
The closing statement of the conference lists its conclusions and recommendations, including the following: "The [Palestinians'] rights, chiefly the rights of the refugees and the right of return, cannot be achieved through peaceful resistance alone. [Peaceful resistance] must be complemented by armed resistance..."; "Content related to the Palestinian cause must be reintroduced into the curricula of schools and universities, so as to re-involve the Arab and Islamic public [in this issue]"; "The Muslim Brotherhood has promoted the Palestinian cause through political and media efforts, and through jihad. No stone has been left unturned in [the efforts to] bring Palestine back into the fold of the Arab nation... [The Muslim Brotherhood] regards the Zionist occupier as an enemy and a foreign body, and [believe that] the Muslims must unite their efforts to uproot and remove it. The most prominent [action] they have take [in this context] was jihadi and educational action..."
The "Youth and the Palestinian Cause in Light of the Arab Spring" conference 
* L. Barkan is a research fellow at MEMRI.
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 Facebook.com/alkotla.gaza.east, February 21, 2013. The Hamas government recently announced its intention to establish the Gaza Strip's first military school, to be named after the assassinated commander of the Al-Qassam Brigades, Ahmed Al-Ja'bari.
 Facebook.com/alkotla.g, February 20, 2013.
 Facebook.com/alkotla.g, February 20, 2013.
 Facebook.com/alkotla.g, February 22, 20, 2013.
 Futuwwa – an Islamic term meaning heroism or chivalry, which encompasses the sum of a man's virtues: courage, equanimity kindness, etc.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5054, New Program In Gaza Schools Teaches Military Skills, Cultivates 'Resistance Spirit', November 16, 2012.
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 According to a Muslim hadith, on Judgment Day the Muslims will defeat the Jews, and the latter will seek shelter behind a certain kind of thorny tree called the Gharqad tree.
 Alkotla.ps, March 18, 2013.
 Al-Khansa bint 'Amr was a poet in pre-Islamic times who converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. She is considered the "Mother of Martyrs" since, after her four children died in one of the battles of early Islam, she did not mourn them but rather thanked Allah for "honoring her with their deaths."