Hebrew teaching to be expanded in the Gaza Strip

Hamas say Gazans should "better know their enemy".

“Know Thine Enemy” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Children in classrooms across the Gaza strip will soon be putting this theory to practice by learning Hebrew, according to Hamas.

Teaching of the language will be expanded in government schools - around half the schools in Gaza. A faculty of Hebrew studies is being set up at the pro-Hamas Islamic University. Arabic is already compulsory in Israeli schools.

Soumaya al-Nakhala, a senior Hamas education ministry official, told Reuters: "Expanding [Hebrew] teaching comes as a result of our plan and meeting greater demand by students to learn Hebrew. They want to learn the language of their enemy so they can avoid their tricks and evil.”

Many of the 1.5 million Gazans used to speak the language of Israel, as they were labourers there. Since 1994, when Israel started preventing Gazans from crossing its borders, this number fell dramatically. Today only around 50,000 Gazans speak some Hebrew - often picked up from their experience as prisoners in Israel.  

“That question about language is very important. One can ask of the Israelis who learn Arabic. Language is a window to another person's/groups' point of view, and may promote peace as well as understanding the enemy,” commented Camelia Suleiman, author of “Language and Identity in the Israel-Palestine Conflict.”

Hamas may be realising the importance of languages in the “war of information” with Israel. During Netanyahu’s recent bombardment of Gaza, an Israeli social media campaign tweeted videos and statements on the conflict in many languages, including Arabic. Recently arrived migrants to Israel were recruited to spread support of the war in their own languages through the media. The Israeli Foreign Ministry already has a YouTube channel in Arabic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even started tweeting in Arabic.

“There is no doubt that one of the most salient elements of the recent changes in the Middle East has been the role of communications technology,” Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry Spokesman Gal Ilan told The Algemeiner in December. “We believe that public diplomacy initiatives – by virtue of internet and social media – have the power to reveal Israel’s true face and reach people’s hearts and minds and to effect Israel’s image among the Arab communities.”

Ofir Gendelman, the Israeli foreign ministry's spokesman to the Arab media, talks about the ceasefire with Hamas

It seems Hamas agrees with Ilan. Teaching Hebrew is a foothold in shaping the narrative of Israeli media. Even the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, now tweet in the "language of the enemy."

As for individual Gazans, hopefully they will have more of a chance to tell their own stories and engage with Israelis on an equal linguistic footing. At the very least, Gazan children toiling over Hebrew verb tables can take comfort that  their learning is easier than it was for its first student. Itamar Ben-Avi, the language’s first native speaker, was taught only modern Hebrew as a child in the late 19th century - a language his father had only just formulated. Unable to communicate with or understand other children, a dog was his only companion.

Palestinian students do their homework. Photograph: Getty Images
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times