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Young Gazans Brave Fear To Welcome Hamas Leader

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Tens of thousands of people turned out for a mass rally in the Gaza Strip on Friday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hamas, which governs Gaza. The guest of honor was the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal.

This is Meshaal's first-ever trip to Gaza, and it's been seen as a political milestone in Hamas' attempt to gain wider acceptance in the region.

Gaza is a small, very crowded strip of land that is full of young people. Roughly 1.7 million people live here, and about half are under the age of 18.

Young People, Politically Minded

In many countries, the very young have zero interest in politics. After decades of conflict, however, Gaza is an intensely political place and its young people were out in force to give Meshaal a hero's welcome.

Watching Meshaal's convoy sweep past, 18-year-old Ghadeer Elewah came with her 13-year-old cousin to catch a glimpse.

"We love Khaled Meshaal so much," Elewah said. "We always see him on the TV; we see what he does because he is always supporting us, he is representing our issues, he's representing us."

Meshaal is officially in Gaza to join celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of Hamas, but he's also here to congratulate Gazans on what Hamas is calling a victory. That's how Hamas views the latest bout of hostilities with Israel.

Gazans are still clearing up after an eight-day missile offensive that Israel says it launched to stop Gazans firing rockets at its towns and cities.

Children Afraid

Living under missiles and rocket fire was terrifying for children on both sides. In Gaza, at least 40 Palestinian children were killed and many more were injured.

A lot of the young people celebrating Meshaal's arrival are still suffering the aftereffects of the conflict.

"Ninety percent of children under the age of 18 are still afraid of hearing big explosions in Gaza," says Mioh Nemoto, a children protection specialist with the United Nation's children's organization, UNICEF.

UNICEF is researching the effect of the missiles on Gaza's children, and some preliminary findings show that two-thirds of children are having bad dreams and half of the children under 12 have been experiencing bed-wetting at night, Nemoto says.

In a Gaza cafe, Ruba, a mother of three who is afraid to give her real name, chats with friends. She is no fan of Hamas and has little time for all this victory talk.

"My kids, they got scared," Ruba says. "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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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