At the small mixed-gender training room of the Nafha center for Hebrew and Israeli studies, six students of various ages have gathered. “Me’ayin is the Hebrew word for ‘from where,’” the teacher, Ahmed Alfaleet, explains. Alfaleet, the head of the center, was once a prisoner in Israeli jails.
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The 42-year-old was one of the more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners exchanged for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011; after he was freed, he decided to take on the challenge of spreading the Hebrew language in Gaza. After all, it’s so important, and so few people know it.
Alfaleet, who was sentenced to a life term for killing an Israeli in 1992 at the Kfar Darom settlement in central Gaza, served 20 years. In prison, he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Open University of Israel.
“After I was released, I worked as a Hebrew-language trainer in various academic institutes for three years until I decided to open this center in April 2015,” he says. “I’m very much convinced Gaza should have such a specialized center.”
Released prisoners now represent the cultural bridge between Israelis and the more than 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza. But since the second intifada erupted in 2000, Israel has stopped letting in thousands of workers from the enclave.
Alfaleet says Gaza is connected to Israel whether people like it or not. “As an occupier, enemy or as neighbors, Israel exists next door to Gaza, so we have to deal with it,” he says.
His more than 70 students in four classes are journalists, doctors and businesspeople who have to communicate with Israelis. He says he’s very satisfied with the results; most of his students now speak Hebrew fluently.
Some of these students were fellow prisoners; they felt they had to start businesses when they were freed, and they were buoyed by the monthly stipend they received from the Palestinian Authority when they were in prison.
Some opened restaurants and others focus on the Israeli-Palestinian cultural side. Some even work as experts on Israeli issues.
Nafha is the only institute to specialize in both Hebrew and Israeli studies, but it’s not the only one to be launched by a released prisoner. The Atlas Center for Israeli Studies was opened by Abdulrahman Shehab, a 48-year-old affiliated with Islamic Jihad who was released at the same time as Alfaleet.
Atlas is the only institute in Gaza that translates Hebrew-language news on a website daily. Shehab, who was 19 when he was sentenced to 35 years and served 23 years, finished high school in prison, where he went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s.
“I had to use the time of my life I was denied in a better way,” he says. “I spent my years there learning and studying without stopping for a day.”
In prison, Shehab would watch Israeli TV and realized that Palestinian officials knew little about Israeli society. But Israeli officials knew much more about Palestinian society.
‘’I wasn’t sure I’d ever be released, but I always thought that if I left I would use all the education I got in raising the awareness of people in Gaza about the Israeli occupation,’’ Shehab says.
He says he has two goals; one is being done: To translate Hebrew media into Arabic so Palestinians can know more about what Israelis are thinking and planning. The other is to write in Hebrew for an Israeli audience so the Palestinian voice can reach Israelis directly “without makeup and advertising.”
In Alfaleet’s class, 22-year-old Ibraheem Omar sports a long beard and a long djellaba robe. He says in fluent English he’s very keen to learn Hebrew.
“I love languages and I’ve always wanted to learn Hebrew, not only because it’s the language of the enemy but also because languages make you better able to understand different cultures around the world,” he says.
People in Gaza were more open to Israelis in the past; Israeli TV channels 1 and 10 were the stations most watched in the Strip. Also, it was a tradition to listen to the daily bulletin on Israel Radio’s Arabic service.
Back then, thousands of workers served as a bridge between the two communities, but now the young generations appear to know little about each other, viewing the other as aliens.
Ahmed Abu Eyada, a 22-year-old journalism student, says he’s learning Hebrew to help him in his career. “You can’t be a journalist in Gaza without understanding the Israeli media,” he says.