Learning the enemy’s language

Man writes words in Hebrew on chalkboard in front of students sitting at desks

Ninth-grade students learn Hebrew at a Gaza City school in February 2013.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Intisar Ayyad went through an unsettling experience in an Israeli hospital. Diagnosed with leukemia, she was scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant. She wished to be properly informed about what was happening but encountered a major obstacle. The staff preparing for the operation spoke Hebrew, and not Arabic.

“I couldn’t understand a word,” Ayyad, a 27-year-old student from Gaza, said. “As the anesthetist stepped towards me, my head started to spin. I felt really terrified.”

Ayyad demanded to know what precisely was being injected into her. She refused to let the procedure go ahead until someone would explain everything in Arabic.

The personnel at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, a city east of Tel Aviv, eventually found an Arabic speaker and Ayyad gave her consent to the operation. But when she woke up from surgery, she felt bewildered once again.

The staff gave her an auto-translation device. After 24 hours it broke down; nobody seemed bothered about repairing it or finding a new one.

Ayyad’s surgery took place at Beilinson Hospital in 2014. Following the surgery, she decided to learn Hebrew.

Doing so has proven necessary. In order to receive specialized treatment inside Israel, Ayyad regularly has to apply for permits from the Israeli authorities.

Once each permit is granted, she is then required to undergo a detailed interview at Erez, the military checkpoint that separates Gaza and present-day Israel.

“Knowing zero Hebrew vocabulary turns those interviews into hell,” she said. “By the end of them, the soldiers have humiliated and dehumanized me.”

The Hebrew classes that Ayyad is attending are run by the Nafha Center for Prisoners Studies and Israeli Affairs in Gaza.

The center is run by Ahmed Alfaleet, who spent 19 years imprisoned by Israel.

Alfaleet was released through a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas in 2011. He established the center in April 2015 as he felt it was important for people in Gaza to understand Hebrew.

“Our lives and even our deaths are connected to the Zionist entity ‘Israel,’ whether we like it or not,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “We must learn their language so that we can understand them.”

National duty

Khalil Wishah is another former prisoner teaching Hebrew in Gaza.

Now in his early 60s, Wishah learned the language during the 1980s. He and other prisoners effectively set up their own school behind Israeli bars.

He felt that he had a firm grasp of Hebrew after studying the language intensely for six months.

“I didn’t realize when I lay back against the dank walls of Bir al-Saba [Beersheba] prison in 1982 that the place would transform me into a professional Hebrew teacher,” he said.

Wishah said he was released in a 1985 prisoner exchange deal following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon three years earlier.

For decades, he taught Hebrew on an informal basis. More recently, he was given a job with the Hebrew department of Al Zaytona University College in Gaza.

“I want my people to educate themselves about the Israeli community more and more,” he said. “For me, it’s a national duty to understand your enemy, to analyze it and to know how it thinks through reading or following its media.”

“Resistance is not always about holding a gun, it might be about understanding your enemy,” he added.

Understanding Hebrew used to be of vital importance for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. That was because so many of them had to travel into present-day Israel — usually on a daily basis — to find work.

More than 35 percent of Gaza’s labor force worked in Israel between 1970 and 1993. The conditions of employment were, in many cases, highly exploitative. Jobs undertaken by Palestinians working in Israel were mainly manual in nature and concentrated in agriculture and construction. Palestinians were paid between 30 to 50 percent less than Israelis in those sectors.

Because of restrictions imposed by Israel in more recent years — including an economic blockade for most of the past decade — Gaza’s inhabitants have effectively been banned from working in Israel.

Even though job opportunities in Israel have been almost eliminated, there are many practical and political reasons why people in Gaza may be keen to learn Hebrew. For a start, a large amount of groceries for sale in Gaza have been imported via Israel; the details on their packaging are often in Hebrew.

Lost in translation?

An arguably bigger issue is that Gaza’s hospitals and clinics — bombed repeatedly by Israel since 2008 — do not have the capacity to treat patients with certain illnesses. Traveling to Israel for specialist care — something that requires overcoming a variety of hurdles imposed by Israel’s military bureaucracy — is essential for people with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

Such travel means that Palestinian patients and their families are likely to come in contact with Israeli soldiers, as well as doctors and nurses, whose first language is Hebrew.

Approximately 1,400 Palestinians were allowed to travel from Gaza into Israel for medical reasons in June this year. Roughly the same number of people were permitted to accompany the patients concerned.

Mohammed Alhammami argues that knowing Hebrew is important to gain a proper understanding of Israeli politics.

“Learning Hebrew helped me read the Israeli press and Israeli writers,” he said. “A lot of things get lost in translation. It is best to find the original sources.”

Alhammami teaches English for AMIDEAST, an American organization that runs educational programs in the Middle East.

He studied at Franklin and Marshall College in the US, where he enrolled in a Hebrew class.

At the time, he was writing an independent research paper on the idea of a one-state solution in Palestine.

Alhammami supports the principle of having a single state in historic Palestine — the territory now divided into Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip — that would guarantee equality between Muslims, Jews, Christians and non-believers. To properly analyze the idea, he felt it was necessary to understand what various Jewish scholars and political figures had written on the subject in Hebrew.

He argues that to defeat Israel’s state ideology of Zionism, it is first vital to understand it. A good knowledge of Hebrew can help in doing so.

“Israelis benefit from occupation,” he said. “They benefit from segregation and misery. They are not going to say to us, ‘Here, have your freedom.’ We have to take the initiative. One way to start is by learning Hebrew.”

Nesma Seyam is an interpreter, journalist and fixer based in Gaza. Twitter: @Nesma_Seyam