A group of Palestinian activists erected nine street signs in Jerusalem’s Jabel Mukabber neighborhood last Saturday, assigning the anonymous thoroughfares road names in Arabic and English. One was named Farouk Street, a popular nick name for Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, the Muslim general who conquered Jerusalem in 637 AD.
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Erected by a Palestinian NGO called Jerusalem Horizons, the street signs were a small but symbolic move in the contest over the character of a city venerated by three religions (Jews, Christian and Muslims) and claimed by two national groups (Israelis and Palestinians). Formed two months ago, Jerusalem Horizons strives to reclaim the Arab names of Jerusalem streets and neighborhoods, rescuing them from what organizers term the city’s "Judaization."
"Our main goal is to educate the people about the importance of maintaining the original Arab names," Fakhri Abu-Diab, a resident of Silwan and board member of Jerusalem Horizons, told The Media Line. "I fear the day my son will come home using the Hebrew name for a site."
Israelis and Palestinians have been tangling over Jerusalem for more than a century, but the competition has grown intense since 1967, when Israel took control of the eastern half during the Six Day War. In the last several years, tensions have grown as Israelis have mounted a campaign to reclaim a Jewish presence in Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967 and says it intends to keep the city united under its rule. But the Palestinian Authority, which is in stalled peace talks with Israel over a Palestinian state, claims the eastern half for their future capital. East Jerusalem contains the Old City, Jerusalem's original walled center and the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
Jerusalem Horizons calls its street-naming campaign "In the Footsteps of Omar” after the same Omar Ibn Al-Khattab.
"We wish to follow in the footsteps of Omar and return Jerusalem to its Arab roots," Abu-Diab told The Media Line. "We feel that the danger of Judaization has begun to affect the Arab, Islamic and Christian legacies of the holy city. For too long we have settled for condemnations and statements instead of real action on the ground."
Jerusalem Horizon’s street-naming has no legal status. Streets get their official designation from a municipal committee comprised of five city council members and three public representatives. Citizens may propose a name, which is then approved by an advisory committee, headed by former Israeli chief justice Yaakov Turkel.
Abu-Diab said he submitted a list of Arab street names to the city's name committee a year ago, but the city did nothing with them. "This made me think that the neglect by city hall was intentional," he said.
In fact, the issue of names for Jerusalem’s streets and neighborhoods is a complicated affair, reflecting the city’s changing rulers and populations. Major thoroughfares are named after King George V, from when the British ruled, and after Salah al-Din, who took back the city in the name of Islam from the Crusaders.
In the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel, Israeli forces took control of several Arab neighborhoods located in central and western Jerusalem. Despite the city's efforts to Hebraize the names of neighborhoods with names like Geulim, Gonen and Givat Hananiya, and their Israeli residents continue to call them by their Arabic names of Baqaa, Katamon and Abu-Tor.
Following the Six-Day War, the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem grew to incorporate 28 Palestinian villages including Jabel Mukabber. This time, many streets and neighborhoods were never given official names, either Hebrew or Arabic.
Abu-Diab said the fact that his street like many others in the neighborhood has no name causes disruption in postal and other services.
"We plan to expand the initiative to the neighborhoods of Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah and the Old City," he said, referring to the three neighborhoods contested by Israelis and Palestinians. "The names we give the streets are the ones that have been used and recognized by local residents for generations."
Nadav Shragai, a journalist and researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), a local think-tank, said the municipality should be more vigilant in ensuring that all the city’s streets are named and in a way acceptable to all its residents if Israel wants to keep the city united.
"If street signs are being put up for nationalistic reasons in defiance of Israeli sovereignty, I'm not excited, to say the least," Shragai told The Media Line. "But if the intention is to help residents find their way around their unmarked neighborhood, I'm all for it."
Street-naming should be part of a comprehensive policy of ensuring all Jerusalem’s 750,000 residents get equal access to services and infrastructure, he said. About a third of the city is Palestinian.
"Those who want a united city can't just demand territory and treat the residents like a nuisance," said Shragai, the grandson of former Jerusalem mayor Shlomo Zalman Shragai, who governed the city between 1950 and 1952.
Zakaria Odeh, executive director of the Civic Coalition for Defending the Palestinians' Rights in Jerusalem (CCDPRJ), a grassroots umbrella group, insisted that the imposition of Jewish street names across Jerusalem was part of a wider Israeli policy.
Odeh said the municipality and the Israeli government used an array of methods to implement this policy: forcing Arab store owners to include Hebrew on their shop signs, revoking residency papers from Jerusalem Arabs and most recently a decision by the Ministry of Education to impose the Israeli curriculum on private schools in east Jerusalem.
"The issue of education is the most dangerous," Odeh told The Media Line.
Meir Margalit, a city councilman for the left-wing Meretz party and
member of the municipal names committee, said he considered the new
Palestinian initiative a legitimate form of civil disobedience.
"There is ongoing neglect not only regarding street names, but in every
possible domain," Margalit told The Media Line. "The residents are
taking matters into their own hands? That's happening 42 years too late,
as far as I'm concerned."
No official comment from the Jerusalem Municipality was available at the time of publication.