Creating new perspectives since 2009

Learning Hebrew in Gaza reflects the political context

January 23, 2014 at 4:53 am

For the first time in twenty years, Hebrew is on the curriculum in Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip. Around 750 ninth-grade students are learning the language of Israel, under a pilot scheme that could be rolled out to other schools in the coming years. The Islamic University in Gaza has also introduced a one year postgraduate diploma in Hebrew.

The story of Hebrew-speaking in Gaza is an interesting mirror for the wider political situation. Up until about two decades ago, thousands of Gazans worked in Israel, in jobs ranging from menial work in factories or fields, to Palestinian doctors working in Israeli hospitals, or Gazan businessmen co-operating with Israelis on import and export deals. As such, many learned to speak Hebrew. Still others picked up the language in Israeli prisons. In 1994, that all changed – except for the prison spells. Gaza gained limited self-rule through interim peace deals, and Israel closed its borders to Gazan workers, citing security threats and the increased cross-border violence of the second intifada. The number of Hebrew speaking Palestinians dwindled as alienation and isolation grew, and it is now estimated that just 50,000 of Gaza’s population of 1.5 million speak the language of the occupying force.

So what is behind the new linguistic drive? “[Students] want to learn the language of their enemy so they can avoid their tricks and evil,” Somayia al-Nakhala, a senior Hamas education ministry official, reportedly said. Students interviewed by various outlets, including Reuters and the BBC, have reiterated this sentiment. “It’s good to understand the enemy language in order to counter them,” one student told the Guardian. The international media has made much of this apparently confrontational motivation.

In any conflict, it is inevitable that languages will sometimes be used for negative ends; to hurl insults or issue threats. The military wing of Hamas issued tweets in Hebrew during the eight day conflict in November, while Israel regularly texts Gazans in Arabic. In Israel, where Arabic is the second official language, Arabic classes are compulsory between the ages of 11 and 13, with some schools offering it to a more advanced level. An official at the Israeli education ministry said several years ago that “studying Arabic will promote tolerance and transmit a message of acceptance”. It is a laudable aim, but in practice, Israelis frequently use Arabic for less than peaceful ends. Intelligence officers often have a strong grasp of the language so that it can be used in interrogations. Settlers use their Arabic words to hurl abuse at their neighbours. The point is, on both sides of the conflict, language is inevitably used as a weapon.

But it would also be naïve to deny the practical benefits and positive knock-on effects of speaking a common tongue. People in Gaza use Israeli products. When they are prescribed medicine, it is from Israel and the labelling is in Hebrew. Much of the television they watch is Israeli. The relationship between Gaza and Israel may be acrimonious and complex, but the two are inextricably linked. Not understanding the language of the dominant partner can only compound existing feelings of alienation and isolation among Gaza’s population. “We are connected to Israel,” Al-Nakhala said, talking about the new curriculum. “Politics is different from practicalities.”

Learning Hebrew will allow Gazans to read Israeli newspapers, watch Israeli TV shows, listen to Israeli radio stations, and read Israeli history books. Some of this may be used for political ends, but the inevitable knock on effect is some level of increased understanding of a different culture. Some of the 19 students studying for a diploma in Hebrew at the Islamic University have cited pacifism as their aim.

Language will always be a powerful propaganda tool and weapon of war. But it is also the only way of creating the possibility of dialogue. In an ideal world, both sides would stop using language primarily to exchange abuse and threats. This is far from being a reality, but giving children the tools for understanding can only be a positive thing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.