Some Gazans still speak Hebrew, 15 years after Israeli withdrawal
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Some Gazans still speak Hebrew, 15 years after Israeli withdrawal

Palestinian residents of Strip learned language working in settlements and agriculture, with some retaining knowledge despite border closure

Abdel Rahman al-Najjar, a Palestinian, tends to plants in a flower nursery inside a greenhouse in the former Israeli settlement of Gadid, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 10, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Abdel Rahman al-Najjar, a Palestinian, tends to plants in a flower nursery inside a greenhouse in the former Israeli settlement of Gadid, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 10, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)

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 in the Strip, 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,” said Najjar, a father of nine.

On August 22, 2005, the Israeli army completed its withdrawal of the 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, before leaving the Palestinian-populated territory it had captured from Egypt in the 1967 war.

Two years later, the Hamas terror group violently wrested control of the Strip from the Palestinian Authority, leading Israel to impose a blockade on the territory.

Israel says the blockade, which is supported by Egypt, is needed to prevent Gaza terror groups from smuggling weapons into the territory. Goods are shipped to Israel, inspected, and then trucked into Gaza across the border.

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

A Palestinian farmer holds fowl on a farm in the grounds formerly occupied by the Israeli settlement of Gadid, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on August 10, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)

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

He later worked in Gaza’s settlement of Neve Dekalim.

“I worked in a flower nursery in that settlement,” he said.

He expressed 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 other farmers and workers, he was subject to strict security checks in order to enter Neve Dekalim.

After the withdrawal, locals set up agricultural projects with help from the Gulf state of Qatar, which provides financial aid to the Strip.

Najjar’s view now takes in an olive grove, orange trees and palm trees.

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 withdrawal.

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 said.

A Palestinian man walks past buildings that formerly served as a nightclub, at left, and a synagogue, right, in the former Israeli settlement of Gadid, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on August 10, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“I myself took lessons at a language school in Khan Younis, but it was really difficult,” he said, 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 coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that.

Children swim at a pool area at the Sharm Park amusement park, in the area formerly occupied by the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, south of Gaza City, on August 4, 2020. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

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

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

That, he said, is a fraction of the pay on the other side of the fence that marks 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,” added Najjar.

For the past two weeks, terrorists in Gaza have launched waves of incendiary balloons into Israel, sparking scores of fires; and fired rockets at Israeli communities near the Strip, drawing near-nightly IDF airstrikes in response.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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