Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the removal of the sign from an Israeli Arab village.
As deadly attacks, land appropriation and clashes push a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians further from reach, a row over street signs has further stoked tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday announced Sunday he had asked Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to remove a street sign in the central Israeli Arab village of Jatt. The name on the white and pink road marker? Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu told his weekly cabinet meeting that streets in Israel could not be “named after murderers of Israelis and Jews.” He went further, saying he would table “new legislation if need be, so that this does not happen here.”
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attends Friday prayers on May 17, 2002 at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he had ordered the removal of a street sign named after the former Palestinian leader in an Israeli Arab village. Chris Hondros/Getty
In a country dogged by the politics of the region, road signs carry their own baggage. In the West Bank, which Israel’s military occupies and the Palestinians have earmarked for any future state, the Arabic underneath Hebrew signposts directing drivers to Jewish settlements has previously been scrawled out, with words such as “revenge” daubed in Hebrew taking its place.
The Arafat sign, written in both Hebrew and Arabic and erected in 2008, struck a nerve with Jewish citizens, who protested to Deri for it to be removed after Israeli soldiers discovered the road on the Waze app, according to the Times of Israel. Deri subsequently wrote a letter to the local council of Jatt, telling them the ministry had not approved the name change years before and ordering it to remove the sign immediately.
Palestinians widely memorialize their former leader, who died in a French hospital in 2004. Arafat was and remains a symbol of what they call their national struggle for a sovereign state and the end of Israeli military occupation in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. His mausoleum lies within the Mukataa compound, his West Bank headquarters, in the city of Ramallah, and the Yasser Arafat Museum opened there in November.
Guards stand watch at the tomb of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 4, 2014. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty
The late Palestinian president, recognizable for his khaki uniform and traditional keffiyeh head dress, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, sharing the honor with Israeli negotiating partners Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for their roles in the Oslo peace accords. The desire to name road signs after the leader in Palestinian Arab communities therefore comes as little surprise.
“Yasser Arafat is not our enemy. He is the symbolic leader of the Palestinian people. We cannot accept the concept of Netanyahu,” Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli Arab politician and one of the most popular domestic figures among the country’s Arab community, tells Newsweek . “Maybe he will not be on this sign, but he is in the heart of Palestinians.”
Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List, Israel’s third biggest party, countered Netanyahu’s justification for the order, arguing there are many street signs in Israel named after far-right politicians who discriminated against Arabs, and some named after assailants in attacks against Arabs.
Read more: Behead Arab-Israelis opposed to state, says foreign minister
Many Israeli Arabs and rights groups argue their communities encounter discrimination and racism in a country founded on the principles of Zionism, the ideological foundation of a Jewish state. They complain that the political elite does not represent them, but rather attempts to erode their culture, of which Arafat is a fixture.
The Israeli government-endorsed bill to limit loudspeaker noise from places of worship is a recent example of this, Israeli Arabs argue. They claim the bill, which still needs to pass three more readings before becoming law, is targeted at mosques and their traditional call to prayer, which is announced five times a day.
Mohammed Taher Wattab, the mayor of Jatt, which has a population of 11,000, questioned Netanyahu’s involvement in the row about Arafat’s street name row.
“Yasser Arafat signed a peace deal with Israel and it is a shame that the prime minister finds the need to waste his time on the name of a street in a small town like ours,” he said, in comments made to Israel Radio on Monday.
“From our perspective [Arafat] is the official leader of the Palestinian people, with Israel recognizing him as a partner for [peace] negotiations,” he said, adding that this meant “there is no legal, social or moral prohibition in naming a street after him.”
Palestinians, like Israeli Arabs, are unsurprised by the Israeli government’s move. Speaking to Newsweek on condition of anonymity, a relative of Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Palestinian figure who was a top leader under Arafat, responded simply to the furore over the use of Arafat’s name: “What else would you expect of Netanyahu?”
But in the eyes of Israelis, Arafat is a murderer who wrecked peace hopes at Camp David in 2000, ordered a suicide bombing campaign against Israelis in the Second Intifada, or uprising, between 2000 and 2005, and contributed to the denial of Jewish history and belonging in the region. They hoped his death would bring a restart to relations with the Palestinians, but militant groups said his death only bolstered their determination to continue attacks against Israelis. Israelis say the Arab community knows the sensitivity of invoking Arafat’s name and, as a result, it will only hurt their communities in the long term.
“Until this very day, Arafat was involved in terroristic activities, including two Intifadas,” says Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “I am all for a Palestinian state, always will be, but he had the power to make peace with Israel. The fact that we don’t have peace, it is Arafat.
“So do you believe that this is appropriate for Israelis to name streets after him? I don’t think so.”
He continues: “We want, I want, and I believe the majority of Israelis want, to live with Israeli Arab citizens as equals. So when they make such gestures, it is counterproductive. It hurts Israeli Arabs. It’s a huge mistake.”
Israel’s government has railed against Palestinian incitement to violence and the veneration of leaders who justified violent acts against Israelis, or are accused of ordering such acts themselves.
Netanyahu’s administration has condemned the Palestinians for naming squares and other public places after figures viewed as extremists, such as Dalal Mughrabi, the 19-year-old woman who led a squad that traveled from Lebanon by sea to the Israeli coast, hijacking a bus and driving another in an attack that left 38 Israeli civilians dead. Palestinians who attack Israelis are commonly revered as martyrs, an environment that Israel says will only lead to further attacks against Israelis.
Palestinians walk next to a wall bearing a graffiti image of Al-Aqsa mosque during a wedding procession in the main street of the Israeli Arab village of Jatt, July 7, 2007. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty
“We expect the Palestinian Authority not to call squares after terrorists, and here we find, inside the country, in an Israeli city a street named after Arafat. How is it possible?” Liran Baruch, a disabled Israeli soldier who lobbied the right-wing Israeli NGO Tirtzu to take the case to Deryeh, told The Jerusalem Post.
As Netanyahu’s government takes the political battle to the Arab streets of Israel, the removal of road signs may only put a band-aid on the Arab desire to celebrate their heroes from neighboring lands.
“Maybe Netanyahu should know that in the same village there is a street called Palestine and a street called Mahmoud Darwish,” says Tibi, referring to the revered Palestinian poet.
“I am aware that they will find the will to commemorate the memory of Yasser Arafat,” he says, switching to the residents of Jatt. “If not in a street, maybe in a mosque, or another place.”
- Hamas names hard-liner as its new political leader in Gaza
- 'You are committing a racist act': Israel moves to mute mosques' call to prayer over loudspeakers
- Greek community expresses 'disbelief' over changes to Quebec electoral map
- David Friedman's ties to West Bank settlement
- Israel travel ban: Boycott supporters to be turned away
- Island, interrupted: Peace remains elusive for divided Cyprus
- Documentary: "The Settlers," on control of the West Bank
- Israeli watchdog report says Netanyahu's government was ill-prepared for 2014 Gaza war
- Dozens dragged from their homes as police clear illegal settlement in West Bank
- A Muslim father and son engrave the headstones at one of India's oldest Jewish cemeteries
- Meet the volunteers who are risking their lives to save Jewish history in the Middle East
- Trump's team warned Israel against annexing the West Bank
You might also like
- Muhammad Ali's family speaks out against Trump's travel ban
- Here's what the GOP could have learned from Obamacare (but didn't)
- First Read's Morning Clips: Winners and Losers in the GOP Health Care Bill
- President Trump on charm offensive with former rivals
- Could this be the battery that revolutionizes our cars and phones?
- Understanding Republican opposition to their own health care plan
- Did Pakistani security agents kidnap bloggers to make a point?
- Suicide bombing at Pakistan protest kills at least 13
- With friends like these: China’s awkward position after North Korea’s missile test
- ‘Justice must pass’: French president makes rare appearance in Paris suburbs to address riots
- Hamas names hard-liner as its new political leader in Gaza
- Flynn’s swift downfall: From a phone call in the Dominican Republic to a forced resignation at the White House
- Powerful South Carolina political consultant implicated in indictments of a veteran state senator
- Will Donald Trump get a second Supreme Court nomination?
- "Hazing" rituals await Supreme Court's "junior justice" Neil Gorsuch
- The hunt is on for Planet Nine. Here's how to join it
- Trump approves controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline
- Trump praises 'Fox & Friends,' renews old feuds in early morning tweets
- Rex Tillerson finally answers question from NBC News' Andrea Mitchell
- First Read's Morning Clips: The Latest in the Russia Investigation
- Spicer: 'I've let the president down'
- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday
- OMB Diriector Mick Mulvaney: Washington's 'a lot more broken' than Trump thought
- Trump attacks conservatives over failure of health care bill
- A very consequential week didn't go well for President Trump
- Health Care Showdown: Republicans look to go big or go home
- No deal on health care bill after conservatives meet with Trump
- CA gov on those supporting health bill: 'Their name is going to be mud'
- Give it to me straight, doc: Is Obamacare dying?
- First Read's Morning Clips: Waiting for CBO
- 14 People Share What's It's Really Like to Have An Ex Who Is Now Their In-Law
- The Internet Is Freaking Out About The Way This Chef Cuts Pizza
- The hunt is on for Planet Nine. Here's how to join it
- Israeli prime minister talks of a snap election amid concerns over a new public broadcaster
- U.S. condemns suspected Syrian chemical attack on civilians, but says the Assad government is a 'political reality'
- Canada's largest school board will end class trips to the U.S. due to Trump's travel restrictions
- Warplanes strike Syrian town already hit by chemical attack
- Vigilantes prowl Europe's border with a target: Muslim migrants
- A letter from Britain to the European Union will trigger the 'Brexit' process March 29
- Ukraine president suggests a Kremlin-orchestrated attack after former Russian lawmaker is shot dead in Kiev
- Russian officials say St. Petersburg subway blast killed at least 11 and injured dozens
- As death toll in hospital attack soars to 50, Afghanistan investigates whether it was an inside job
- South Korea's ousted leader moves out of palace, apologizes for 'not fulfilling my duties'
- A brazen political killing shakes Myanmar, already teetering on the path to democracy
- India's Narendra Modi leads his party to victory in a state with more than 200 million people
- A controversial Thai monk is wanted in connection with a fraud case. His followers won't give him up
- Another Dalit suicide on campus raises fears of a crisis of discrimination at Indian universities
- Syrian government insists it does not use chemical weapons; US vows serious response to attack
- Bodies of U.N. workers and interpreter found in Congo, prompting calls for investigation
- Hamas hangs 3 Palestinians in Gaza it says were collaborating with Israel
- Basque group ETA hands over weapons, ammunition and explosives to France
- Syrian ally Iran blasts U.S. missile strikes as 'dangerous, destructive and a violation of international law'