The latest hot language among Palestinians in Gaza? Hebrew

Students are flocking to a fledgling Hebrew program sponsored by Gaza's Hamas-run government, encouraged by their parents who learned Hebrew through years of working in Israel.

Christa Case Bryant / The Christian Science Monitor
Maysam El-Khateeb teaches Hebrew to ninth grade girls at the tidy Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, one of 20 schools participating in a pilot program launched this school year.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, government-run schools in Gaza are teaching Hebrew, and demand is outstripping the supply of qualified teachers. The driving force behind this pilot program? Hamas.

“[Israel is] more developed than us, so we can get benefits out of it – in terms of science, in terms of culture,” says Mohamed Suleiman Abu Shqair, the deputy minister of education in the Hamas government. “This is also to prove to the rest of the world … that we are open-minded, even to teach our enemy’s language in our schools.”

Many middle-aged Gazans know Hebrew well, since they spent years working in Israel before the border was tightened in 2003. They say it’s only natural that their children should know Hebrew as well and even hold out hope that they could use it to do business with Israel in the future, hinting at a possible thawing of relations between Israel and Gaza. They also laud the insight of Israeli news analysts, and say that watching Israeli TV news – readily available in Gaza, along with cultural and educational programs – can help them better understand not only their neighbor, but also their own society and political climate.

The Hebrew language pilot program, launched in September 2012, is still small in scope. Today it reaches only 20 of 400 government schools in Gaza, with each school offering a single class of 30 to 40 9th-grade students. Mr. Abu Shqair says next year Hamas would like to expand to 10th grade as well, but faces a shortage of qualified Hebrew teachers. 

Even the program’s strongest proponents don’t claim that it will improve ties between Israel and Hamas, which is designated by Israel and the West as a terrorist organization. In fact, some suggest that the intent is more to understand the enemy.

“We are not looking for developing things with the Israelis, we are learning Hebrew to protect ourselves and to defend our country from the Israeli occupation,” says Maysam El-Khateeb, a Hebrew teacher at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City. Citing a popular proverb, she adds, “As we say, if you know the language of the other nations, you will protect yourself from their hatred and evil work.” 

One of her students, 14-year-old Nadine, goes even further. When asked why it is important to know the language of one’s enemy, she responds confidently, “To attack them, because we must know how they think, how they talk about us.”

More opportunities over the border

Daniel Fares, a father of 15 who spent most of his life working in Israel, much of it at a Coca-Cola factory, is familiar with the proverb. But he also suggests Hebrew can help improve understanding between Jews and Arabs.

Sitting in his humble home in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, he recalls one time when he saw a Jewish mother and daughter walking down the street in Israel, and the daughter dropped her chocolate on the ground. Because he speaks Hebrew, he understood what the mother said when the girl leaned over to pick it up: “Don’t be like the Arabs.”

So he took the opportunity to tell the mother she shouldn’t teach her children that way.

His children haven’t learned Hebrew, but he hopes the pilot program will expand to their schools.

“In the future they could be translators, analysts, businessmen,” he says, speaking fondly of his Israeli boss at Coca-Cola.

The world as a classroom

Back at Hassan Salma school, Mrs. Khateeb opens her afternoon class by saying “Erev tov!” (Good evening!)

"Erev tov," the students respond.

“Who are you? What are you? What are you studying?” she asks, beginning a sing-song pattern of call and repeat that they are clearly familiar with. One by one, girls in white hijabs stand up to answer the queries.

“Where is the notebook? Where is the chair?” she quizzes them, and they answer in unison.

This is not the way their parents’ generation learned Hebrew.

Saba, a taxi driver sitting on the sidewalk with his boss, says he picked up the language during the 12 years he worked in Israel, starting with only a three-month course and then learning from everyday conversations after that.

“To learn it with communication is better even than to learn it at schools,” agrees his boss, Mohammed Johar, who regrets not having learned more Hebrew himself.

“It’s good for us to know what Israel thinks, what they are saying in Hebrew,” says Mr. Johar. “The Israeli analysts are really good and they know and are aware of their politics and our politics. So if we listen to their analysts and our analysts, we will get a better idea of what’s going on.”

A first step

Hebrew was taught in Gaza schools from 1967, when Israel captured the small coastal territory in the Six-Day War with its Arab neighbors, until 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was created under the auspices of the Oslo Accords. The PA became responsible for the curriculum in government-run schools and did not include Hebrew, although United Nations schools in Gaza are run separately and did. 

The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are administered largely independent of each other. Hamas runs Gaza while the PA, dominated by Hamas’s secular rival Fatah, runs the West Bank. While the PA is backed by the West and has ties with Israel, Hamas has refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and the two entities do not speak directly.

Abu Shqair at Gaza’s Ministry of Education insists that the Hebrew pilot program is purely educational and cultural in scope. “We don’t have strategic plans or political plans out of it,” he says. “We don’t have any other ideology in our mind.”

But he is eager to expand the program if the government can find enough qualified teachers and hopes that Gaza may one day engage again with Israel.

“I don’t want to guess or imagine,” he says, “but if the two people do recognize each other, this will be a normal thing.”

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