Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Gaza Strip, Students Get to Know the 'Enemy' through His Language

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Gaza Strip, Students Get to Know the 'Enemy' through His Language

Article excerpt

Starting this autumn at some schools in the Gaza Strip, students will be able to sign up for a new course called Know Your Enemy -- otherwise known as the Hebrew language.

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 autumn 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 schools in the Gaza Strip, 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 Ministry of Education in Gaza, which is run by Hamas.

"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 360 square kilometers, or 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 U.N. 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 the Gaza Strip'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 the Gaza Strip. 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. …

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