The Gazans speaking Hebrew 15 years after Israel left

Khan Yunis (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


When Abdel Rahman al-Najjar works among the plants in his Gaza nursery, Hebrew words still slip from his lips, a legacy of Israel's long presence which ended 15 years ago.

"Taazov!" -- Leave it alone! -- he suddenly snaps at a visitor holding flowers at his business in the Al-Mawasi area, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Then he smiles and takes a break from working under the hot August sun.

"Some words from everyday life, names of pesticides and plants are still there in Hebrew," says Najjar, a father of nine.

On August 22, 2005, the Israeli army completed its evacuation of the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, before leaving the Palestinian territory.

Two years later, it would be under the control of the militant Islamist group Hamas, leading Israel to impose a blockade on the narrow strip of land now populated by two million people.

Without Israelis in Gaza, and with little chance of leaving the fenced and closely guarded enclave to work in Israel, some Gazans have nevertheless maintained their knowledge of Hebrew.

Najjar learnt the language when he worked at a nursery in Israel.

He later worked in Gaza's Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim.

- 'Life came back' -

"I worked in a flower nursery in that settlement, but the (Israeli) army destroyed everything before leaving," he said.

He expresses no nostalgia for the times before the evacuation.

The settlements were like fortified islands, sometimes surrounded by high walls of concrete and barbed wire and protected by military posts.

Like thousands of other farmers and workers, he was subject to strict military controls in order to enter Neve Dekalim.

After the Israeli pull-out, Hamas and the Gulf emirate of Qatar, which provides financial aid to the Gaza Strip, set up projects to cultivate the land.

Najjar's view now takes in an olive grove, orange trees and palm trees -- a scene that could almost make a visitor forget the conflict and bloodshed this territory has seen.

Ismail al-Astal, a farmer in his mid-forties, did farm work in some of the settlements, where between 7,000 and 8,000 Israelis lived until their eviction.

He fondly remembers their departure, which took place on a night when he was at home in bed.

"My brother came to wake me up and said to me: 'Praise be to God, the last tank is leaving.' I cried for joy," he says.

"We were like prisoners... and all at once, life came back," says Astal, who received a plot of 15 dunams (3.7 acres, 1.5 hectares) for himself and his seven brothers.

For the past two weeks, the Israeli air force has bombed the Gaza Strip almost every night, in retaliation for incendiary balloons and rockets launched from the enclave.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.

- 'Who are you going to talk to?' -

Astal later passed his knowledge of Hebrew to his son, Mohammed.

"I love learning Hebrew. Sometimes I hear my father speak Hebrew with relatives or friends," the younger Astal says.

"I myself took lessons at a language school in Khan Yunis, but it was really difficult," he says, referring to a nearby city.

"Who are you going to talk to? Israelis are not allowed to go to Gaza."

In the wake of a fragile truce last year between Hamas and Israel, some Gazans were allowed across the border to work, such as in construction.

The novel coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that.

Fifteen years after the withdrawal, "Israel controls everything, the crossings, poverty, misery and unemployment," Mohammed al-Astal says.

The unemployment rate exceeds 50 percent in the coastal enclave, rising to over 60 percent among young people.

Najjar, who works in the nursery, says he labours hard for wages ranging from 20 to 80 shekels per day (between around $6 and $23).

That, he says, is a fraction of the pay on the other side of the thick concrete and wire that mark the border with Israel.

"I hope that I will be able to return to work in Israel and that my unemployed children will find work," adds Najjar, whose family used to live in the village of Salamah, near Tel Aviv.