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Umm al-Fahm: Where the streets have no name

Israeli authorities are refusing to approve street names selected by the city of Umm al-Fahm to acknowledge and honor Palestinian figures and history.
A general view shows the Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm August 16, 2016. Picture taken August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad - S1BETXLWGTAB

RAMALLAH, West Bank — For five years now, Israeli authorities have prevented Umm al-Fahm, one of the largest Palestinian cities in Israel, from naming some of its streets as the municipality sees fit. While the Ministry of Interior recently approved some street names, it rejected others for their symbolism.

The Umm al-Fahm City Council is scheduled to hold a meeting with the Israeli Ministry of Interior at the end of February to push for approval on the rejected street names.

Umm al-Fahm, home to about 60,000 residents, extends over an area of ​​some 10 square miles. The vast majority of its Palestinian Muslim population belongs to four large clans: Agbariya, Jabarin, Mahajneh and Mahamid.

The lack of street names means that many people do not have home postal addresses. There is also a shortage of mailboxes at distribution centers. According to Bilal Agbariya, the deputy head of the Umm al-Fahm municipality, a third of the mail arriving in the city does not reach the correct recipient. Thousands of people share the same first and last names, and homes are sometimes identified by landmarks.

In March 2013, Umm al-Fahm launched a project to issue more street names and allocate additional house numbers. It submitted a list of 300 street names to the Ministry of Interior, but according to Agbariya, the ministry has been procrastinating.

“After a four-year delay, the Umm al-Fahm municipality held a meeting with the Israeli Ministry of Interior on Oct. 21 [2017] to learn the reason behind its rejection of the submitted names,” Agbariya said. “They told us that they had an objection to dozens of proposed names, and on Oct. 31 sent us a message approving 247 names while asking for the amendment of 13 and rejecting 40 altogether.”

The names rejected by the Israeli Ministry of Interior are those of Palestinian national and political figures, including poets Mahmoud Darwish and Rashid Hussein Mahmoud and late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and leaders of the Arab revolt that began in 1936, including Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and Yusuf al-Hamdan. They also rejected the names of Palestinian villages that were destroyed and abandoned in 1948 — among them Sabarin, Khabiza, Tantura and Umm Hanoun — and of former Umm al-Fahm leaders, including Tawfiq Asalieh, the first head of the municipality post-1948, and Ahmad Abu Hashsash, the second head.

While Palestinians see naming their city streets, towns and squares after nationalist leaders as affirming their national and Palestinian identity, Israel objects, deeming some selections as the glorification of terrorism. Meanwhile, it is not opposed to naming streets in predominantly Jewish cities after Israeli figures who have called for the expulsion or the killing of Arabs.

“Nothing justifies their refusal to name a street after Yasser Arafat,” Agbariya said. “Didn’t he win a Nobel Peace Prize? Didn’t he sign the Oslo Accords and shake hands with both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres? Why does the Ministry of Interior allow the naming of several streets in Israel after the former Israeli Minister [Rehavam] Zeevi, who called for the expulsion of Arabs and described them as snakes?” Route 90, the longest street in Israel, was named after him.

The lack of names and addresses causes serious problems for residents who fail to receive their mail. Agbariya said, “For example, when residents are fined for committing a traffic violation, there are cases when their mail gets lost due to the confusing addresses. This leads to the accumulation of fines and penalties that can amount to tens of thousands of shekels.”

Some residents are forced to use complicated references to landmarks, such as mosques and stores, in providing directions to their houses and shops. This also creates difficulties for the tens of thousands of visitors and shoppers who visit daily from neighboring villages and need to find their way around, according to Agbariya. Umm al-Fahm, as one of Israel's largest Arab cities, is an important commercial hub for surrounding Arab towns and villages.

Although the Israeli Ministry of Interior has approved some street names, the proposed new ones not approved are problematic in terms of moving on to the next stage on the ground. “We are ready to allocate numbers for houses and names to streets, and we will start working as soon as we get a full approval,” he said.

Agbariya further stated, “If the Israeli Ministry of Interior insists on rejecting the suggested names, then a committee will be formed by the municipality to look into the matter and decide whether to insist on the proposed names and file a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior near the Israeli courts or decide to change them.”

Yousef Jabarin, an Arab member of the Knesset from Umm al-Fahm, told Al-Monitor, “The naming of the streets of our cities is not a technical issue but one that reflects our history, our culture and our national identity. It is an important tool for consolidating the national memory of successive generations, and Israel is well-aware of that. However, it wants to deprive us of our right to name our streets after national symbols.”

Jabarin continued, “The Israeli rejection of this case is part of a policy aimed at denying us our Palestinian national identity and obliterating the Palestinian narrative with the names of Palestinian leaders to prevent future generations from learning about them.”

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