Is Hamas Learning to Speak Better Hebrew?

Hebrew letters
Hebrew letters (Photo: Natalia Y/Unsplash)

Israel’s security services recently thwarted a Hamas scheme to hack the phones of IDF soldiers. Hamas members posing as attractive women made contact with Israelis online or on chat applications and managed to fool hundreds of them.

Most reports focused on Hamas’ improving cyber capabilities, but the story raises another interesting question: Are Hamas members becoming more fluent in Hebrew?

The Ynet news website interviewed several victims of the Hamas scam. Some said that they became suspicious eventually, but no one mentioned any issues with Hebrew. “I thought that it was a regular girl who wants a relationship,” one of them said. “I’m truly shocked. I never imagined that this could be Hamas.  

Snippets released by the IDF suggest that the terrorists were able to chat in authentic-sounding Hebrew, for the most part. They used simplistic terms and short phrases, taking advantage of the informal style of such chats.

However, I did see some strange spelling mistakes and odd phrasing (which apparently did not trigger any suspicions or alarm). Overall, the Hebrew seemed a little better than similar Hamas schemes in the past.   

This time around, most Hamas “women” pretended to be recent immigrants to explain their imperfect Hebrew. Others claimed that they were deaf or mute to avoid phone conversations. They also used Hebrew slang to gain more credibility with their targets. In some cases, Hamas sent brief voice messages containing one or two words.

Hamas Songs in Hebrew

The Hamas love affair with Hebrew did not start this year. The group’s early attempts to reach out to Israelis were often undermined by atrocious grammar, resembling a parody more than sophisticated PR. The heavy Arabic accents were not helpful either.  

During the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas posted video clips in Hebrew and engaged in psychological warfare via text messages. As part of this effort, the group promoted what would become its most famous song, Tkof, Ta’ase Piguim (Hebrew for “Strike, carry out attacks”). You can watch it here. It is so well known that the Hebrew Wikipedia has an entry about it.

Moreover, a Twitter account set up in 2014 by Hamas’ military wing Izz al-Din al-Qassam featured decent Hebrew, according to an article on the Mako news site. A Hamas song from 2017 also showcased a reasonable command of Hebrew, but the heavy accents and occasionally odd phrasing remained (you can watch it below).

קבלו את הלהיט החמאסי הבא: "דייק בירייה – תפגע בקריה".במסגרת הנסיונות ללוחמה הפסיכולוגית נגד ישראל – קליפ אנימטורי חדש שמופץ אתמול (שלישי) ברשתות החברתיות [יש גם גירסה עם תרגום לערבית – לצריכה פנימית], שיש בו (כמו קודמיו מהשנים האחרונות) משהו מן המשעשע.

Posted by ‎חדשות המזרח התיכון‎ on Tuesday, February 7, 2017

In 2018, Izz al-Din al-Qassam launched a Hebrew website. The first post included high-level Hebrew but also arcane phrasing, grammatical errors, and flowery language that did not resemble contemporary spoken Hebrew.

In 2019, Hamas released a new song, mocking southern Israel residents for their helplessness in the face of ongoing attacks (you can watch it on Twitter. One Israeli responded that their older songs were better).

Learning Hebrew in Jail

So how does Hamas aim to improve its Hebrew proficiency? While Israel’s defense establishment runs intensive and specialized Arabic programs, it is unclear to what extent Hamas does the same. However, we do know that many convicted terrorists improved their Hebrew in Israeli jails.

Several high-profile detainees, from Hamas and other groups, acquired advanced Hebrew skills during their imprisonment. Some Palestinian officials, such as Jibril Rajoub, readily agreed to do Hebrew interviews in the past. Hamas members are less open to speaking publicly, but some of the group’s key figures spoke the language well.     

In 2017, Israeli TV aired a rare recording of a Hebrew phone interview with senior Hamas figure Saleh al-Arouri. (You can listen to it here, starting at 0:42 into the clip. His Hebrew is pretty good).

One way or another, social media and chat applications make it easier for Hamas to impersonate Israelis. These modern means of communication take key factors — namely physical appearance and accent — out of the equation, thereby enabling terrorists to mask their identities more efficiently than ever.

As technology keeps improving and new tools become available, terror groups will have even more opportunities to devise elaborate schemes. On the other hand, advanced technologies will likely make it easier to detect such deceptions. For now, the never-ending cat-and-mouse game between Israel and Hamas will continue, in Arabic and Hebrew.