In April 2012, the Hamas government’s Education Ministry in the Gaza Strip announced that it would begin offering Hebrew classes to high school students in 2013. The plan has since been implemented, and ninth-grade students in 14 schools in Gaza now have access to Hebrew-language classes as an elective.
Hebrew is not an entirely foreign language to Palestinians in Gaza since hundreds of thousands of them at some point worked in Israel before Hamas seized control of the coastal territory. According to Reuters, some 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza “retain a grasp” of Hebrew. The decision to teach Hebrew has, unsurprisingly, generated a variety of reactions.
Many Palestinians believe that since Hebrew is the language of their adversary, learning Hebrew is key to understanding the Israelis and dealing with them. They, therefore, see the decision to teach Hebrew as a step in the right direction. For instance, Reuters reported that during the eight-day Israeli military operation in Gaza in November 2012, Hamas and its armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, sent messages to Israelis via statements, videos and broadcasts in Hebrew.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Soumayya al-Nakhala, a senior official in the Hamas Education Ministry, said that the decision to offer Hebrew classes had been received extremely well by students and parents alike, who understood its centrality to dealing with the Israelis.
Learning a society’s language in general, Nakhala asserted, is indispensable to understanding its culture and dynamics. Most important in the Palestinians' case is that Hebrew is not simply the language of another society; it is the language of an enemy. Because of the Israeli occupation, the Palestinians in Gaza, de facto, are bound to deal and interact with Israelis, sometimes on a daily basis.
Ziyad Thabet, an assistant deputy at the Education Ministry explained to Al-Arabiya that it is normal for a people under occupation to learn the language of their occupier. He noted, “We are living under occupation, and the occupation speaks Hebrew, and most of the commercial products have Hebrew written all over it. It will be useful to learn this language.”
In addition, Nakhala emphasized how learning Hebrew will enable students to read Israeli newspapers and closely follow Israeli media, which can be of great importance during times of armed conflict. She explained that during the Israeli attack in November, Israeli TV was the Palestinians' main source of news about military operations.
“How can one understand the Israeli society’s culture without first learning their language? Hebrew is the language of our enemy, and our lives are in effect connected to Israelis, as we have to deal with them regularly in, for example, our commercial dealings and medical transfers. Students need to learn this language since all life's matters are controlled by the occupation,” she said.
Khalid el-Baba, 48, is a Hebrew teacher from Gaza. He said that he was extremely excited about the government’s decision to teach Hebrew to a young generation who will in ten years’ time grow up to become future leaders and intellectuals in Palestine.
“This step will have a significant influence in the long term. These young students will be better able to understand Israeli politics and society than our current generation if they learn Hebrew effectively. Therefore, they will be better leaders.” Baba added, “I also expect this will raise interest in Israeli and Jewish studies, which could be a potential subject at Palestinian universities.”
From another perspective, some believe that Hamas' decision will serve to deepen its political division with the Palestinian Authority (PA) government in the West Bank. Since the PA Education Ministry did not implement a similar offering, teaching Hebrew in Gaza is seen by some as a unilateral action that in the end might result in two completely separate education systems for Palestinians.
Ibrahim Abrash, a former PA minister of culture, told Al-Monitor that the political dimension of this decision is that there was no coordination between the ministry in Gaza and the ministry in the West Bank, which has resulted in a discrepancy, though not a very significant one, in the curriculum offered to students.
Abrash voiced the concern that this might be the slippery slope to more curriculum changes through additional unilateral decisions by the ministry in Gaza that could further deepen division. He added that any political dimensions for such decisions would be internal matters likely to impact Hamas-PA relations, but not Palestinian-Israeli ones.
“What needs to be addressed isn’t whether teaching Hebrew is going to be useful for Palestinian students. We all agree it is,” Abrash said. “However, a decision such as this one should have been taken in coordination with the [Education] Ministry in the West Bank. . . . I am afraid this will show Gaza as independent from the West Bank, and the government in Gaza has the final say without referring this to the government in the West Bank,” he explained.
In contrast to Abrash's concerns, Anwar al-Barawi, a deputy assistant at the Education Ministry, said that the decision to teach Hebrew will not have an effect on Palestinian unity since it is not a compulsory class. He also noted that the Ramallah-based ministry has had no objections to it.
“Although the government in Gaza is capable of making essential decisions, the government, and the Education Ministry in particular, are keen on advancing reconciliation, and we, in most cases, coordinate with the ministry in the West Bank before we make a decision,” Barawi told Al-Monitor.
“It is our conviction that the education system and, namely, the Palestinian curriculum, has always been the only thing left which connects Gaza and the West Bank. We consider this as a red line, and we will do our best to keep it intact,” said Barawi.
The decision in Gaza to teach Hebrew was in part justified by the need to interact with Israelis. Taking such a step in PA-administered schools would be even more reasonable since Palestinians on the West Bank interact with Israelis much more frequently.
Mohammed Suliman is a Gaza-based writer and human rights worker. His writings have appeared in various online publications, including Al Jazeera English, openDemocracy, the Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss.