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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

November 27, 2002

Writing on the wall - literally:

It turns out one of the less obvious advantages the Palestinian terrorists have over IDF is the language barrier. While most Arabs in the "territories" understand, if not speak Hebrew quite well, most Israelis do not understand Arabic. It is often offered in schools, but only as an option along with other foreign languages (unlike English, which is part of the curriculum imposed by the state). And Arabic is not high on the list of a typical Jewish mother, who would rather have her child learn French, or at least Spanish.
One of my girlfriends in Israel came there from Lebanon at the age of 9. She and her several siblings still speak Arabic when they get together, but most of their kids (some of whom are no longer kids) don't. This puts Israeli citizens in general, and IDF soldiers in particular at a great disadvantage in every aspect of their dealings with Arabs, both inside Israel, and in the territories. Most Israelis get their news from the nearby Arab world through translation, which naturally follows selection.
While Israel still seems to be managing quite well when it comes to intelligence gathering, it has problems in areas that may seem less crucial, but still very important. A retired IDF general on IBA radio today pointed out one such area: the writings on the walls. They are everywhere in Palestinian towns and villages, and they are much more than Western style graffiti. They can contain anything from political messages, through wedding, birth and death announcements, to any other kinds of information. Often one can learn from them which of the several militant organizations, or which one of the competing leaders within an organization controls the specific area. To most IDF soldiers entering these densely populated areas these writings mean nothing. Another more obvious disadvantage is the frequent inability of the soldiers to communicate with the residents in language they understand best, or to simply listen in on someone's conversation.
The general also pointed out that if Israelis and Arabs are to live next to each other in the future, under whatever arrangement, it only makes sense that we understand them, not only that they understand us. I think many Israelis are familiar with the Arab culture to a certain extent, but there can be no full understanding without the mastering of the Arabic language. And in any event there is also much room for improvement in how educated Israelis are in the Arab and Islamic history. Speaking of history: I heard or read somewhere today that some Palestinians seem to be studying the history of Zionism and Israel very closely, with the key idea being that what had worked so well for the Jews, might work for them as well, and that some tactics or strategies may be worth emulating.

(Crossposted here).