It's rare for a school in the West Bank to offer Hebrew classes. And it is rarer still for the Hebrew teacher to be a convicted killer, fresh out of jail.
That’s how it has been this year at the Greek Orthodox Secondary School in the village of Taybeh. When the morning school bell rings, ninth grade boys shuffle into class with Esmat Mansour, a Palestinian prisoner who served twenty years in jail for the murder of an Israeli.
Mansour was released in August, along with other Palestinian prisoners. During the last 9 months of US-sponsored peace talks, Israel has agreed to free groups of prisoners convicted of killing Israelis in order to keep the talks going.
Recently, however, there was a disagreement over a formula to extend the talks, and Israel didn’t follow through on releasing one last group of prisoners. Last week, peace talks broke down altogether.
Releasing convicted Palestinian killers has been hugely unpopular in Israel. But Mansour, the recently-released prisoner, says he is committed to building bridges between the two societies by teaching Palestinian kids how to speak Hebrew. Once a week, he teaches seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth grade Hebrew at the Greek Orthodox school in Taybeh.
During one recent class, Mansour taught students how to order food at a restaurant. He stood in front of a boy’s desk and recited a dialogue from the student's textbook. Mansour’s Hebrew is so good that he can read from the textbook upside down.
Mansour wore a slick sports jacket and a black, buttoned-down shirt tucked into light jeans. It is hard to imagine that he spent the last twenty years in a prison uniform.
When Mansour was his students' age, he helped kill Haim Mizrahi, a 30-year-old Israeli who used to buy eggs at a farm where Mansour worked, near a West Bank Jewish settlement. One day, when he came to buy eggs, Mansour and some older teens pounced on him.
“We thought we would be able to kidnap him and release Palestinian prisoners,” said Mansour. “However, we could not control the settler. We had to kill him.”
Mansour said the other teens stabbed the Israeli and he did not. But an Israeli judge found that Mansour held the Israeli down during the stabbing, and sentenced Mansour to 22 years behind bars for premeditated murder.
In jail, Mansour studied journalism by correspondence course and wrote three novels. One of his Palestinian cellmates taught him Hebrew.
His Hebrew got to be so good that he became an official liaison between his fellow prisoners and prison officials. Every day, he’d read Israeli newspapers and watch Israeli television — news, culture, even the Israeli version of CSPAN, which airs government meetings.
“This is the main reason why I decided to become a teacher, because I saw the other side of the Israelis,” said Mansour. “I saw that we can build bridges. I saw that we can communicate with the Israelis and understand each other. We can find, through language and through talking to them, partners with whom we can talk peace.”
In August, Israel released Mansour a few years early, along with 23 other prisoners. Mansour received a hero’s welcome in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority made him the rank of a colonel, gave him a $50,000 homecoming gift and started paying him a monthly salary of about $1700. He didn’t really need to work.
But Abeer Khouryieh, the principal at the Greek Orthodox School, found him a job teaching Hebrew at her school. Khouryieh said she knows of only one other school in the West Bank that teaches Hebrew.
“I want to give the example of [Mansour] as a person who was put in jail for many years and who came out loving life,” said Khouryieh. “He did not come out bitter, ready to take vengeance. No, he came out as a human being who wants to continue in a peaceful way.”
That “peaceful way” seems to fall on deaf ears in Mansour’s ninth grade Hebrew class. The day’s lesson, how to order pizza or chocolate ice cream at an Israeli restaurant, is a scenario the kids cannot even imagine. Most Palestinians are barred from visiting Israeli cities.
None of the kids in the class said they knew any Israelis. Instead, they said they are taking Mansour’s Hebrew class to learn the language of the enemy. “At the checkpoint, they speak to us in Hebrew, so I should be able to respond to them in Hebrew,” one student said.
“When we know the Hebrew language, we will understand their plans, we will understand their thinking, and this way, we can be ahead of them,” another said.
“I think there will never be peace, because they are not peace lovers,” a third student said, referring to Israelis.
Mansour said he understands his students. They’re about the same age as he was when he helped kill Haim Mizrahi.
“This generation is living through a very confused situation. Nothing is clear,” said Mansour. “They don’t have any hope in any political debate [or] solutions. They do not believe in their leadership. They are very pessimistic and very confused. I am very worried that they will be pulled into extreme behavior, that they will conduct extreme acts, because they are very vulnerable.”
Mansour is trying to be a role model for his students, but it’s complicated. He said his students keep asking him why he was in jail, and though he said he never tells them, he is sure they know what he did. His students consider him a hero, but he doesn’t want them to glorify killing.
On the one hand, Mansour said he would never kill again. But, on the other hand, he said he was like a soldier acting on behalf of his people and doesn’t regret what he did.
Whether Mansour can be the role model he wants to be is not an easy question to answer.
“I see in their eyes that they see me as a hero,” said Mansour. “But I try all the time to tell them that killing someone is not a decision of a human being. Killing is a decision only of God. He is the only one who should decide to end somebody’s life. Through other means, we can be heroes, not through killing.”
This is not a story of personal forgiveness and reconciliation. Mansour has not reached out to the family of the Israeli he helped kill, and that family was completely against his release.
Instead, the way Mansour describes it, his story is one of a man who did his time and wants to make a difference for the future. Mansour is focusing on his own people, the next generation of Palestinians, to try to help them understand Israelis — in their own language.