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
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism