by Jodi Rudoren | TheNewYorkTimes | May 22, 2012
Photo Below: Wissam Nassar for The New York Times.
A Hebrew class for adults in Gaza City. This fall, high school students in Gaza will have the option of studying Hebrew.
GAZA — There are few electives in the Hamas-run high schools here. Students can study health and the environment, or they can learn French. And, starting this fall at some schools, they will be able to sign up for a new course called Know Your Enemy.
It is a Hebrew class, beginning with the Aleph Bet — there is a six-word Arabic acrostic of the 22 Hebrew letters to help students remember. It has been nearly two decades since the language was taught in Gaza’s schools, and last month, after much debate, Hamas officials chose to add it to the optional curriculum rather than Turkish or German.
“Through the Hebrew language we can understand the structure of the Israeli society, the way they think,” explained Mahmoud Matar, director general of the Hamas-run Ministry of Education here.
“The Arabic language is a basic thing for the Israelis, and they use it to achieve what they want,” Dr. Matar added. “We look at Israel as an enemy. We teach our students the language of the enemy.”
For all its problems of poverty and restricted movement, the Gaza Strip is a place that prides itself on education: illiteracy among its youth was less than 1 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank, and there are five universities within its 139 square miles. There are many mountainous challenges for its forlorn schools, with their dilapidated buildings where classes of 50 or more meet in triple shifts; the United Nations World Relief Agency is building eight new schools, but officials here say the population, 1.6 million and expected to double in a generation, needs hundreds more.
The schools teach English, though with mixed success. Wandering through the alleyways of the beach refugee camp, children and teenage boys call out, “How are you?” to a foreigner but have no reply when faced with a “Good, how are you?”
Now, seven years after Israel’s withdrawal from the strip and five years after Hamas wrested control of it from the Palestinian Authority, students will begin grappling with Hebrew.
The Education Ministry has not yet settled on curriculum materials, though it is far more likely to rely on photocopied worksheets than to buy textbooks from its estranged neighbor. There will eventually be four levels, starting in ninth grade. The program will be offered to both girls and boys, who attend classes separately here. It will begin in 10 to 20 schools in September, depending on interest and the availability of teachers, Dr. Matar said, and expand to all of Gaza’s 180 high schools if successful.
Menna Malahi, 14, will be one of those first students. Her parents, like many here, speak some Hebrew: her father, like thousands of his generation, did construction work in Israel years ago; her mother studied the language in school when Israel occupied Gaza. They taught Menna to count from 1 to 10, “echad l’eser,” when she was young.
“French language is not useful for us, because we study English, and when you study English you will not need the French,” she said in an interview in Arabic. “With the Hebrew, it is a different language for people who live close to us. The Israelis used to come to Gaza and might come again in the future.”
Hebba Ayoub, who is 13, said her eighth-grade teacher encouraged the class to choose Hebrew, and most did. But not her. “I have a friend who speaks French, and I admire the language when I listen to her,” she said.
The Palestinian Authority does not teach Hebrew in its schools, and has no plans to do so. In Israel, Arabic has long been a staple of the curriculum: it is a compulsory subject in middle school, with about 350,000 students enrolled, officials said, and recently was introduced as an option in fifth and sixth grades, attracting 15,000. Among high schoolers, 10,000 are studying Arabic, according to the Education Ministry.
Here in Gaza, many adults speak some conversational Hebrew, learned decades ago on the job or more recently while serving time in Israeli prisons, but cannot read or write the language, officials said. While some see the classes as training for future spies, others have more practical, even mundane goals: to fill out paperwork for medical procedures done in Israel, to understand the news — and the cartoons — broadcast via satellite.
Both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages that share as much as 40 percent of their grammar and word roots, experts say. The numbers and parts of the body sound similar — head is “ras” in Arabic, “rosh” in Hebrew — as do the words for right and left, and every day: kol yom. Both are written and read from right to left.
While Hebrew has not been taught in Gaza’s public schools since 1994, there have been a smattering of classes available for adults, though enrollment has dwindled from several thousand a year to a few hundred, according to Jamal al-Haddad, who heads the program. Government employees pay 50 shekels — about $12 — for three months of classes three times a week for two hours. (Others pay twice that.)
At one such class last week, a half-dozen students were reviewing for their final exam. They went over the names of languages themselves: ivrit (Hebrew), anglit (English), tzarfatit (French). The teacher asked where they were yesterday (“ba’avodah sheli,” at my work; “babayit,” at home). One woman in a hijab went to the chalkboard to write words in their masculine and feminine forms: “ish” and “isha” (man and woman); “tov” and “tovah” (good); “katav” and “katvah” (past tense for “write”).
Three of the students were teachers, hoping to perhaps take on the new Hebrew classes. Three were young women who were not currently working. One was an accountant who needed to translate documents for businesses dealing increasingly with Israel.
“Hebrew for Arabs is not difficult,” said Subhi Bahloul, who supervises language programs at Gaza’s Education Ministry. “The Hebrew is very, very simple grammar. The grammar of Arabic is very, very difficult. The English and the Hebrew, I master it; the Arabic, no.”
Mr. Bahloul said he had a master’s degree in Hebrew from Tel Aviv University and hoped to soon earn a Ph.D. in the language. “Inshallah,” he said, using the Arabic for “God willing,” which he sprinkles freely into his Arabic and English as well as his Hebrew.
Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza City, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.