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Twenty years ago, many of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians could speak and understand Hebrew from having worked in the Jewish state or spending time in prison there for alleged involvement in militant attacks.
But Gaza has been largely isolated from Israel since 1994, when it gained limited self-rule through interim peace deals and Israel shut its gates to most Gazan labourers, citing security threats and mounting cross-border violence.
Today, only about 50,000 Gazans - often former labourers and prisoners in Israel - retain a grasp of Hebrew.
Younger adults generally can speak only Arabic despite living next door to Israel and using its shekel currency.
“We chose to learn Hebrew because we felt it was an interesting language, and also because when you learn your enemy’s language you also learn how to avoid their evil,” said 14-year-old student Mohammed Seyam.
About 750 students are already studying Hebrew as part of a pilot project in Gaza, Hamas officials said, and the pro-Hamas Islamic University has launched a faculty of Hebrew studies.
“This is a trial programme and we hope next year to expand the number of students learning Hebrew,” Wafa Mqat, headmaster of a Gaza City school conducting the pilot course.
Khaled Al-Baba, among a number of teachers who picked up Hebrew during Israel’s occupation of Gaza from 1967 until 2005, said many pupils now preferred to study Hebrew over previous favourite French.
In his classroom one day, Baba fired questions at his pupils in Hebrew and some boasted they already knew the language well enough to decipher instructions on Israeli-made products sold at Gaza supermarkets and follow Israeli media.
Hebrew is not a part of the school curriculum in the West Bank, where the Western-backed Palestinian Authority exercises self-rule in areas not occupied by Israeli settlers and has already recognised the Jewish state.
The Israeli armed forces and security services have many officers with a strong command of Arabic, particularly intelligence officers who interrogate Palestinian detainees. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)