Arts, Culture & Media

Hamas Puts Hebrew in the Curriculum

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Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

One place that was not on President Obama's Middle East itinerary this week was the Gaza Strip. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton was the first sitting US president to visit Gaza. He even brought the first lady along. But with the Islamic militant group Hamas in firm control of the Palestinian territory, it's tough to imagine a sitting US president setting foot there.

Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that Hamas-run schools in Gaza have started offering Hebrew language classes. Government-run schools in Gaza put the main language of the Jewish State on the curriculum at the start of the school year.

In a spartan classroom of ninth-grade girls at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, teacher and students begin what feels like a scripted routine for some visitors.

"What's the capital of Palestine," the teacher asks in Hebrew?

"Jerusalem," the students respond in unison.

These are some of the first Gaza public school students to study Hebrew in nearly 20 years. Nadine al-Ashy is a 14 year-old with a knack for languages. She says Hebrew is, "easier than English." And of course, "it's the language of our enemy."

"We must know how they think, how they talk about us."

Almost everyone I speak with in Gaza gives me some version of a common Arabic expression that goes like this: Learn to speak the language of your enemy, so you can protect yourself from his evil deeds.

Nadine's Hebrew teacher, Maysam Sayyid il-Khatib, says there was a lot of interest in signing up for Hebrew class. So, I ask, is there any chance this could somehow lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

"No," she responds matter-of-factly. "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."

On the streets of Gaza City, it's easy to find people who speak good Hebrew.

Like most middle-aged men in Gaza, a 44-year-old taxi driver who gives his name as Saber speaks Hebrew fluently. He worked in Israel for 12 years, back in the days when tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza had jobs there. He says more young people in Gaza should be learning Hebrew.

"At home, I watch Israeli TV every day. Not just the news, but movies too and I read Israeli newspapers," Saber says.

These sources in Hebrew offer insight and perspective that is missing from the Arabic language media. Saber says his kids don't really understand Hebrew. But he wants them to start. Never mind the fact that few Palestinians from Gaza are allowed into Israel. Saber suggests that it is especially important to hear what Israelis are saying about the Gaza Strip during times of war.

There are 400 government-run schools in Gaza. Only 20 of them offer Hebrew as an elective for 9th graders. But Hamas officials want to expand the program.

"Why Hebrew," asked Mohamed Abu Shuqair, Hamas deputy minister of education. "Even if we don't agree with the Israelis on many things, we are still living in the same region. Israel is more developed than Gaza. Palestinians can learn from Israeli TV and websites."

There is another reason for putting Hebrew on the high school curriculum, Abu Shuqair says. "Many people say Hamas in Gaza is close-minded. We are so open-minded, that we even teach the language of our enemy here."

That might be debatable. But there does seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in this decision on teaching Hebrew. The Hamas leadership appears to be looking toward Israel, with its stronger economy — rather than Egypt, with its new Islamist-dominated government — for the sake of Gaza's future.

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    Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

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