Hebrew taught in Gaza schools, but barriers remain
- 21 February 2013
- From the section Middle East
For the first time in decades, schools in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip are teaching Hebrew, but the move is not aimed at building bridges between the foes, as the BBC's Jon Donnison reports from Gaza.
At the Hassan Salaama Girls School in Gaza City, you can hear an unusual foreign tongue.
"Erev tov," says the schoolmistress. Good evening.
The girls in their neat black and grey school uniforms and white headscarves jump up from their desks in unison.
"Erev tov," they chant back.
They are speaking Hebrew.
The throaty and distinctive language of Israel is now being taught to Palestinian children in Hamas government schools.
The Islamist movement introduced the programme earlier this year. It is the first time such classes have existed in Gaza for two decades.
Such has been the demand that the government is having to train more Hebrew teachers so the classes can be rolled out across Gaza.
And the girls are keen to learn. At each question the teacher fires out, they thrust their hands into the air, eager to please.
'Language of the enemy'
Arabic and Hebrew have some similarities and the students seem to have taken to it quickly.
"It is very easy," says 14-year-old Nadine al-Ashi.
"It is easier than English, it is not difficult at all."
Nadine, who speaks to me in good English, is now on her way to becoming tri-lingual. She is as confident a student as she sounds.
But she dismisses the idea that learning Hebrew might lead to an outbreak of peace and understanding.
"Hebrew is the language of our enemy," she says with an air of seriousness.
"The Israelis think we are afraid of them and we want to tell them we are not afraid of them. We will fight them with this language."
Nadine's friend, 15-year-old Nour Adwan, agrees.
"If we meet an Israeli and they are speaking in Hebrew it means that if they are planning to do something bad to us, we will know what they are up to."
In actual fact though, there is very little practical use for the language.
Only one of the 30 or so girls in the class has ever met an Israeli or been to Israel, and that was when the girl was getting medical treatment there.
At the Erez checkpoint, the main border crossing into Israel from Gaza, with its caged walkways and automated steel doors, there is very little traffic.
In previous generations, tens of thousands of Palestinians used to cross into Israel every day for work.
Many older Gazans speak good Hebrew as a result.
But Israel's blockade of Gaza and the ongoing conflict with Hamas means those days are gone.
Israel, as well as the United States and the European Union, regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
Israel issues few permits for Palestinians to leave, citing security reasons.
The Israeli human rights group Gisha, which campaigns for better access for Palestinians to and from Gaza, says in January 2013, on average 174 Gazans were allowed to leave through Erez each day.
Most of them, the organisation says, were people seeking medical treatment and their relatives, as well as Palestinian businessmen.
Gaza's population is around 1.7 million.
These days, one of the only practical uses for Hebrew in Gaza can be found in the territory's shops and markets, deciphering the Hebrew labels on imported Israeli goods.
But the Hamas government still believes the language is worth learning.
When I meet Sinyan Filfil from the Education Ministry he is able to talk me through the Hebrew headlines in an Israeli newspaper.
Mr Filfil, which for the linguists out there means "Mr Chilli Pepper" in Arabic, was one of the many Palestinians who used to work in Israel as a labourer when he was a young man in the 1970s.
"I used to have many friends in Israel," he says smiling.
"I would stay at their houses and they would stay at mine."
But those days, he says, are long gone.
"The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said it was important to learn the language of our enemies," says Mr Filfil.
"We want to understand them, to prevent them from deceiving us and to know how they think."
In other words, Palestinian and Israeli children might be learning the same language, but the mistrust is as strong as ever.
And out on Gaza's border with Israel, as I watch a group of young boys playing football, the concrete walls and fences just behind them that separate the two communities are a constant reminder of the barriers that remain.