Why Gazans are rushing to brush up on their Hebrew

The number of Gazans studying Hebrew has quadrupled in some places as Israel allows more Gazans to cross the border into Israel for work. The easing of restrictions is part of a larger effort to cool tensions after the Gaza war in May 2021.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
A young Palestinian man writes in Hebrew during a class at Nafha Language Center, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb.16, 2022. Demand for Hebrew classes has surged since Israel allowed more Gaza residents to cross the border for work.

In a brightly lit classroom in Gaza, a teacher spells out Hebrew words on a whiteboard, followed attentively by Maher Al-Farra and dozens of other Palestinians hoping to take advantage of an opening up of employment opportunities in Israel.

Increased demand for the classes at the Nafha languages center follows a new offer of work permits by Israel as it has moved to calm border tensions following an 11-day war in May with Hamas, the Islamist group which rules the Gaza Strip.

It now offers 10,000 permits allowing Gaza residents to cross the border to work in Israel – a new source of income to a region where 64% of the population is estimated to live in poverty and unemployment runs at 50%.

Ahmed Al-Faleet, the center’s owner, said the number of people enlisted to learn Hebrew has increased four-fold to reach 160 students per course since Israel began giving work permits in the last quarter of 2021.

“These courses allow anyone who gets a permit to read signs, documents written in Hebrew, and communicate with [soldiers] on Israeli checkpoints. If an employer speaks only Hebrew it enables the worker to deal with him,” he told Reuters.

Some 2.3 million Gazans live in the narrow coastal strip, largely unable to leave to seek work abroad and squeezed by 15 years of restrictions imposed by Israel, which has fought four wars with Hamas and other armed groups since 2008. Gaza also borders Egypt, which imposes its own restrictions on crossings.

Before a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, some 130,000 Gazans worked in Israel. Palestinians said Israel had in 2005 barred laborers after pulling troops and settlers from Gaza.

A week’s wages in a day

No one expects the cautious increase in the number of work permits to end the long-running conflict between Israel and Hamas, who fought four wars since the Islamist faction seized control in Gaza in 2007.

But for the dozens of workers and merchants enrolled in the class at Nafha, the change offers the prospect of earning, in Israel, the equivalent of a week’s wages in Gaza.

“I came here today to learn Hebrew so I can handle things at my work inside [Israel] easily,” Mr. Farra told Reuters.

Israeli liaison officer Colonel Moshe Tetro said the new jobs would improve Gaza’s economy and “would also serve calm and security stability.”

Eassam Daalis, a senior Hamas official, said Israel was eventually expected to offer 30,000 work permits, which economists say could allow workers to earn an average of 500 shekels ($156) a day, equivalent to what some can earn a week working in Gaza.

“Every week I go back home happy to my family with 2,000 shekels ($625). I also give to my mother and my father,” said Jamil Abdallah, from Jabalya in northern Gaza.

Gaza economist Mohammad Abu Jayyab noted that the offer of permits was one of a series of economic steps agreed under a political settlement brokered by Egyptian, Qatari, and United Nations negotiators following the May war.

“These are not unilateral Israeli initiatives,” he said.

With tensions brewing over clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the eviction of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah the situation could change quickly.

Israel has tied the offer of more openness to improved security following May’s war and has accused Hamas of investing in building its fighting capabilities rather than resolving the humanitarian problems facing Gaza.

“If the security situation remains stable and calm the state of Israel would open up more and more,” said Colonel Tetro.

This story was reported by Reuters.

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