Hebraizing street signs, erasing Palestinians

Israel's Transit Ministry has decided to remove Arabic and English names from street signs, using only Hebrew names to identify places - a process all too familiar to Palestinians.
Palestine road signs
After ultra-nationalists painted over Arabic lettering on this Jerusalem street sign, a new group of vigilantes restored it. © Daniel Estrin

BEIRUT, July 14, 2009 (MENASSAT) - It has been a detailed, ambitious, and calculated process for Israel, and the Zionist movement – the removal and erasure of Palestinian existence on the land. In maintaining the so-called Jewish state, Israel has left little to no physical and cultural space for the Palestinians of 1948 (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, also referred to as “Israeli-Arabs”), strangling the 1.2 million people into non-existence. Their physical presence remains (though limited), and any attempt towards community empowerment is met with severe systematic repression.

One of the methods used is Hebraizing the society. Israel’s naming committee formed in the 1920s and later reconvened by Ben Gurion in 1949, changed or Hebraized every Arab street name, every village, and city. The 531 villages destroyed when the state of Israel was created, after a drawn-out plan called Dalet, supported by the British, who mandated Palestine at the time, are never commemorated.

In an attempt to erase Palestinian memory, Israel built settlements over their villages. Of the remaining villages, some are barren, the boulders of Palestinian homes still scattered; others had trees planted over them - usually European pine trees -and turned into public spaces such as Canada Park (built on the ruins of Emaus, Yalu, and Beit Nuba, which were destroyed in the 1967 war).

Israel’s most recent move – to remove Arabic and English names from street signs, leaving only the Hebraized version of the name, is a move to further de-legitimize the Palestinian presence in Israel, and bury the Nakba even deeper. Rather than saying “you do not belong here,” Israelis have stepped it up a notch, basically telling Palestinians, “you are not here.” 

An ideological move

According to ministers, the plan released by the Israeli Transport Ministry is being implemented because different spellings on road signs cause confusion for drivers. Under the new policy, Jerusalem would be written as "Yerushalaim" rather than "al-Quds" in Arabic or “Jerusalem" in English.  The city will only be identified as Yerushalaim in all three languages. Jaffa, or Yaffa in Arabic, Palestine’s booming port city prior to 1948, will be written as “Yafo,” while Nazareth, “Al-Nasra”, the largest Arab town, will be changed to “Natsrat.”

But as Israel moves further to the right, it is difficult to believe this move is not ideological.

Palestinian suffering and history are exempt from Israeli consciousness. The Israeli refusal to acknowledge the Nakba exemplifies the failure to recognize the ethnic cleansing that took place from 1947 and continues until this day. This in turn is a refusal to recognize the law of return – a law that stipulates the right of the indigenous population to return to their homes and undermines international law under UN resolution 194.    

Therefore, the decision to remove Arabic from street signs is yet another attempt to say to ’48 Palestinians – “you do not exist here.”

Recently Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist political party Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 seats in the 2009 elections, under the slogan "No loyalty, no citizenship," calling for the transfer of Palestinians in Israel to the West Bank and Gaza.

Not long after the elections, Lieberman tried to pass three bills – one prohibiting the mourning of the creation of Israel (the Nakba), the other prohibiting citizens from not recognizing the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and the  third requiring Israeli citizens to sign oaths of loyalty to the state, its flag and national anthem, and to perform military or civil service.

The loyalty law was rejected, while the Nakba Law was watered down. The new draft law prohibits any government funds from being used for events marking the Nakba, instead of banning commemorations altogether.

Out of context

While most people who follow what is happening in the region are able to recognize that all of these policies are part of Israel’s ongoing attempt to rid the state of Palestinians, and bury the memory of the Nakba, the media coverage has portrayed the most recent move as a simple, ‘administrative’ or ‘technical’ decision.

AFP, for example, one to the first news agencies to report on the issue, featured the headline,  “Israel to keep only Hebrew names on road signs” – a failure to report on the real issue at hand – the removal of Arabic from street signs in a state that has been compared with Apartheid South Africa on numerous occasions.

The article continued: “The Israeli transport ministry said on Monday that it will get rid of Arabic and English names for cities and towns on road signs, keeping only the Hebrew terms…Israel gave Hebrew names, often of biblical origin, to many villages, towns and areas that came under its control following the 1948 war.”

Mirroring a common trait in mainstream reporting, AFP does not contextualize the creation of the state of Israel, but in fact uses language that perpetuates the myth that Israel came to control Palestinian land after winning a war between symmetrical powers. Without properly putting these events into context, reporting on the issue of Israel and Palestine becomes problematic and the coverage meaningless.

The agency also  reported that Minister Yisrael Katz  told Yediot Aharonot that the move was a response to the Palestinian refusal to use Hebrew names for some Israeli towns. "On Palestinian maps, Israeli towns are often still identified with the Arabic names used before the 1948 war" when Israel was created, he said.

Yet, the only mention of Palestinians in Israel is in the last two paragraphs of this article, and only in relation to their so-called disloyalty to the Israeli state: “Elections earlier this year brought a right-wing coalition to power that includes the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which has demanded Israel's Arab minority demonstrate greater loyalty to the Jewish state.”

“Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens account for 20 percent of its population and are descended from Palestinians who remained inside Israel following the 1948 war and the creation of the state,” AFP writes. What the agency forgot to mention is that the state’s creation went hand in hand with the first phase of ethnic cleansing, the creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees ––now numbering 6 million, and the attempted erasure of a people.